Asparagus is a spring delicacy that traditionally is only enjoyed during its very brief season from late April through until early June, give or take a few weeks, depending on the weather. Shoots won't start to appear until the temperature is at least 10C. In recent years though, commercial growers in Herefordshire have perfected a reverse season growing technique which extends their season to October.
This year, the cold, wet weather has really put a damper on the asparagus season and slowed the growth right down. After weeks of willing the spears to grow, I harvested the first bundle at the weekend, finally! Under normal circumstances, the spears can easily shoot up to a decent size with one or two day's growth. This spring though, it's most definitely a waiting game.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family and was originally found growing wild in eastern and southern parts of Europe. The ancient Romans loved eating asparagus, so much so that they would preserve some of the stems for later in the year. As well as drying the asparagus, it was also transported to the Alps in chariots and then frozen in the ice on the mountains. They are also responsible for beginning the cultivation of asparagus and developing varieties with thicker spears than those that grew in the wild. By the 16th century asparagus cultivation was well established in other parts of Europe too. Louis XIV of France even had special greenhouses built at Versailles to force the asparagus in hot beds so that he could enjoy it all year round.
In France and many other European countries, white asparagus, grown beneath the soil, to prevent the production of chlorophyll, is the norm. Although some white asparagus is grown here, purple and green spears are still the most popular.
Ideally it’s best to cook asparagus as soon as possible after it has been harvested as the sugars start to turn to starch once the spears are cut. To prepare asparagus, either bend the spears which will naturally snap at the point where the ends are starting to turn fibrous, or trim the ends with a knife.
Simplicity is the key to cooking with asparagus. Boil or steam the spears until al dente, or try them drizzled with olive oil and roasted in a hot oven or sliced and quickly stir fried. Asparagus and eggs are a delicious combination. Serve the spears with a classic hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise, add them to a frittata or serve them as soldiers to dip into boiled eggs.
Asparagus and salty meats are also ideal partners. Try serving it with serrano or parma ham. Almonds are another lovely flavour combination, especially when lightly toasted and scattered over the spears. I've combined ground almonds with asparagus in this creamy but dairy free soup recipe (see photo above). For a crunchy salad, combine thin slices of raw asparagus with shredded mint leaves and drizzle with a lemony vinaigrette.
Although you can grow asparagus from seed, buying one year old crowns reduces the amount of time that you need to wait before harvesting your first spears. Asparagus is a perennial plant that can be productive for at least 20 years and needs a well drained, weed free site.
Early spring is the best time for planting the crowns. Dig a trench about 20cm deep and 60cm wide, then make a shallow ridge in the trench using well rotted manure mixed with some of the dug out soil. Place the base of the crown on the top of the ridge and spread the roots out around it. Space the plants out at least 40cm between each crown. Finally refill the trench with soil and water in the crowns. Then you just need to wait patiently for two years and keep the beds weed free. Each autumn cut down the feathery foliage when it has turned brown.
In the third year, the crowns will be established and you can start to harvest the spears, carefully cutting them a couple of centimetres below the surface of the soil. Stop harvesting after about 6 weeks to allow the crowns to rejuvenate for the following year.
Recommended varieties include Connover’s Colossal and the newer F1 hybrids such as Backlim, Franklim, Gijnlim and Pacific Purple.