Caviar, truffles, oysters, chocolate and saffron all belong to an elite club of foods that conjure thoughts of luxury, indulgence and pleasure. But asparagus also deserves life membership in this select company, because by way of edible delights, newly-cut asparagus spears take some beating. As spring approaches, no vegetable stirs the same excitement as asparagus. Its appearance on market stalls and on restaurant menus in mid-April heralds the arrival of warmer weather. In the UK, our asparagus season is a short and sweet six to eight fresh, green weeks from the third week of April onwards, depending on the weather. Harvested after the Hungry Gap of March and early April, asparagus provides a welcome splurge of fleeting green vegetable after the sturdy roots and brassicas of winter months and before the tender salads of summer.
A matter of taste
Asparagus ranges from young, slender sprue to the thicker kitchen and jumbo grades, which have a more mature flavour. Some European countries, particularly France and Germany, favour blanched white asparagus, with its characteristic violet shading and yellow tips, which is grown by mounding earth up around the emerging spears to protect them from light. This type of asparagus tastes a lot like salsify. In company with the Spanish, we prefer our asparagus green and grown in full light, which gives it a pea-like flavour. Purple and red asparagus is also popular with keen gardeners and allotment holders. It tends to turn green when cooked, so it is better used tender and fresh, thinly sliced in salads. All shades of asparagus taste special in their own way.
Asparagus never comes cheap, and for good reason. The asparagus crowns that produce the spears take about three years to become established and fully productive, and they must have a well-drained, rich loam – the most prized type of agricultural land. The delicate spears have to be harvested by hand, which involves a lot of bending; mechanisation is out. White asparagus is particularly time-consuming to harvest because only the very tip of the spear peeps out from the soil, so it takes an experienced eye to spot it.
Until the 1980s, most people’s experience of asparagus – unless they had the good fortune of living in one of our traditional asparagus growing areas like the Vale of Evesham – was tinned. Then imported asparagus spears began to appear in fine dining establishments. In recent years, however, asparagus has become ubiquitous in our restaurants, shops and supermarkets. No longer a precious, seasonal crop, a steady flow of air-freighted imported spears has made it available all year round.
Although we eat some Spanish asparagus that precedes our native crop by a couple of weeks, most of the out-of-season asparagus we eat in Britain comes from Peru, flown in by air in chilled containers. Peru has cornered the world market for this vegetable because the US decided to subsidise its fledgling asparagus industry to encourage alternatives to the cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine. Exports have grown rapidly over the past decade, but according to Christian Aid, the benefits have not filtered down to workers. The charity says: “The asparagus export boom is not improving the lives of the poorest. They are forced to work in sub-standard conditions, and poverty and child malnutrition is increasing.” Moreover, Peruvian asparagus production is concentrated on the arid Ica area, and environmental campaigners say that this thirsty vegetable is depleting the water resources on which local people depend.
Freshness is key
Ethics apart, there are other potential problems with imported asparagus. The carbon footprint of air-freighted vegetables has environmentalists throwing up their hands in horror. And from a taste point of view, many believe that imports from thousands of miles away can’t compare with our less-travelled native equivalent.
Asparagus is one of those vegetables, like corn on the cob, that deteriorates rapidly after cutting. The older asparagus is, the more it dries out and develops a bitter, tinny taste. Wizened, greying lower stalks of asparagus are a dead giveaway. Tender fresh asparagus should have tight, firm tips and the stalk, when pressed lightly with your nail, should still feel moist within. If you put pressure on a spear it should snap and look juicy inside, not bendy and woody. Because freshness is key to taste, many believe freshly-cut British asparagus easily upstages the imported stuff that has travelled long distances. So if you have only ever tasted imported asparagus, our home-grown equivalent will be a delicious revelation.
Down the centuries, lore and legend have grown up around asparagus. Aristotle was convinced that it helped the male erection, hence its enduring profile as an aphrodisiac. Renowned 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote of its ability to “stir up lust in man and woman” and poet Charles Lamb commended it on the basis that it “inspires gentle thoughts”. This enviable reputation isn’t merely fanciful, as asparagus
is packed with beneficial nutrients such as vitamin A, folic acid, fibre and potassium.
Asparagus is also one of the best dietary sources of rutin which, along with vitamin C, helps protect the body from infections. It is also a good source of iron, which prevents anaemia, and folic acid, which plays a significant role in the prevention of birth defects. A mild diuretic, the vegetable has traditionally been recommended for ailments associated with sluggish digestion and fluid retention. So don’t be alarmed if your urine has an unusually strong smell after eating it; that’s just the asparagus at work! As for the aphrodisiac effect? Well, the jury is out on this one, but there’s one sure way to find out. Try it and see.
In the UK asparagus season, some greengrocers and some supermarkets do stock home-grown spears alongside imported ones, but to be sure of getting the cream of the British crop, fresh from the field, it may be easier to go direct to a farm shop. You can also buy asparagus via mail order during the growing season.