Fruit and Veg

A chef's guide to asparagus

Written by Tom Moggach
April 24, 2018

Its fleeting season is almost a blessing - nothing beats the buzz around English asparagus.

Growers traditionally supply from April 23rd to June 21st. But while some now push these boundaries, the greedy public still have just a few months to celebrate this peerless ingredient. 

Green, of course, is most popular - but purple and white asparagus is becoming better known.

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Bunch

On the market, you might also find wild asparagus picked in Italy or France. These slender spears gives you a sense of how humans have bred, selected and developed the asparagus plant since it first caused a stir with the Ancient Greeks. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Wild Asparagus

These days, different nationalities have their own asparagus quirks. The Germans, for example, are mad for fresh, white asparagus; while the Spanish like their white spears peeled, cooked and from a tin. 

I'll wager that many people have never seen the plant in full display. So here it is, in its full tufty glory:

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Asparagus Ferns

Without these ferns, the plant would be unable to photosynthesise and store the energy to produce the spears the following year. 

This, in a nutshell, is why the asparagus season is so brief. Growers stop cutting the spears in mid summer to allow the plants time to strut their stuff and recharge.

Key facts

> The botanical name of the plant is asparagus officinalis. It is a perennial plant native to the coast of much of Western Europe and beyond.

> It takes an average of three years for plant to build up the energy reserves to produce the first crop.

> The Ancient Greeks and Romans loved asparagus and even dried and froze it out of season. It features in the oldest recipe book known by Apicius. (If you're interested, it involved mashing the tips with lovage, green coriander, savoury, onions and pepper.)

> Asparagus grows fast - as much as four inches in 24 hours in hot weather. It is harvested painstakingly by hand. 

> According to British Asparagus, an umbrella website for the British growers, eating asparagus promotes healthy bacteria in the large intestine and can help reduce bloating. It contains vitamin K, essential for healthy blood clotting, and is a rich source of vitamin C to boost your immune system. Asparagus is also a mild diuretic and is believed to help detoxify the body.

Growing and harvesting

The Chinn family, based in the Wye Valley in Herefordshire, are one of the most innovative growers in the UK. (See our Product Profile from 2015). 

Their advances at Wye Valley Produce include a "reverse season" technique (more on this later), which allows for an asparagus crop in autumn. They are also unusual in growing white asparagus, which is shielded from sunlight under mounds of soil, and extending the season far outside the normal window of April 23rd to June 21st. 

The asparagus is hydro cooled within one hour after harvest to maintain sugar levels and then delivered to the market that night. "It's 24 hours from us cutting to a chef cooking it," says Chris Chinn (pictured below).

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Chris Chinn
Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Cutting Asparagus

In Norfolk, Andy Allen of Portwood Asparagus is another leading grower. On his farm of around 200 acres, he uses small plastic cloches on around a third of his crop to extend the season by two to three weeks. "This protects it from frost and radiates a bit of heat to the ground," he says. Total production is around 250-300 tonnes. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Andy Allen Portwood Asparagus
Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Portwood Asparagus

Allen uses Dutch varieties of asparagus, as their climate is similar to ours. The 'crowns', which are the sprawling root systems, are first planted in long shallow rows. 

Three years later, they get the first cut at precisely 22cm in height. The spears are washed, hydro cooled, and trimmed before being boxed and dispatched to Market. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Washing Spears
Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Grading Spears

In terms of innovation, Wye Valley's "reverse season" technique involves letting the plants grow their fern earlier in the season then cutting it back. However, yield is reduced and late season asparagus, while a wonderful treat, does come at a price. 

On the Market

Grade 1 English asparagus is available from a wide range of wholesalers including Gilgrove, Premier and Side Salads.

Continental asparagus, including white and wild, is sold by specialists such as The French Garden and European Salad Company

Wye Valley asparagus is readily available on the Market. Simon Collier-Ward of Side Salads sells the Portwood asparagus. He started selling the product six years ago and sold 4 tonnes in the first year. Last year the total was 52 tonnes. 

He advises looking for stems that have very little white colour and are freshly cut. The head should be clean and tight. "You don't want it open because it's flowering".

Grade 2 asparagus - ideal for soups and similar products - is also available. But Collier-Ward warns that quality product is often not substantially cheaper. This is because the grower still incurs the cost of the washing and hydro cooling processes. "The only way you will get Class 2 grass is if you cut it in the field and throw it in a box," he explains.  In recent years, there has been a growth of interest in jumbo asparagus, too - phone ahead if you want to try these extra large spears.


Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Jumbo

Kitchen Inspiration

Keep it simple - that's the mantra. Some chefs trim the bottom of the spears and use a special asparagus steamer, which allows you to gently simmer the thicker base of the spears while steaming the tips.  

Of course, many chefs like to add their own distinctive twist. 

At the chain of Caravan restaurants in London, chef Miles is planning dishes such as charred asparagus with Jersey Royals, garam masala crème fraiche and curry leaves. Or grilled asparagus with stilton, sweet miso and Thai basil.

In this stunning photo from Instagram, chef Daniel Watkins has created a dish of slivers of asparagus with burrata and hazlenuts.

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Chef Daniel Watkins

These are from chef Jan Kubat in Poland. The first shows halved spears served with confit egg yolk, buttermilk, green olives, parsley and pea shoots. The second is a riff on Eggs Benedict. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Chef Dan Kubat
Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Chef Dan Kubat1

At Richmond restaurant in Dublin the chef is serving asparagus with lardo, egg and capers. 

Food blogger Cake and Cleaver shows a more traditional dish, sauteeing the spears in olive oil and dressing with salt, lemon juice and pecorino Romano.

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Asparagus April 2018 Cake And Cleaver

For more inspiration, see the recipes from food writers chef Stevie Parle and Nigel Slater.

While you're here don't forget the new chef's guides in our series so far: Brussels sprouts, Cauliflower and Artichokes

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