Spears of Destiny
The U.K. asparagus season is necessarily short officially running from Saint George's day, which is also 'National Asparagus Day' on the 23rd April until 21st June. Most supermarkets stock imported asparagus, much of it from Peru, throughout the year but it has a lot of transportation miles and in my (heavily biased) opinion isn't nearly as good. I am a stickler for eating seasonal products where they are cultivated and in season so consume lots of British asparagus for the two months when it is available and don't when it isn't.
The Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire is the traditional heartland for cultivating British asparagus but Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Suffolk, Kent, Hertfordshire and other parts of central and southern England are also home to asparagus farms. Asparagus grows best in a mild climate and on sandy soils and, although it is a mild diuretic, it is rich in vitamin K and has long been perceived as being one of our healthier home grown vegetables.
The British Asparagus Growers Association, based in Louth in Licolnshire, cites five methods of cooking asparagus – boiling, steaming, grilling, roasting and barbecuing. I've tried my hand at all of those but, after years of experimentation, have settled on steaming as being the simplest and most effective method of cooking it. The main point to pay attention to is not to overcook it. Cooking times vary according to the thickness of the asparagus stems but I think about 5 minutes is optimum given that the asparagus will keep cooking after it is has been drained.
I usually rinse and trim the ends off the asparagus before steaming it in about 3 centimeters depth of (originally) cold water in a lidded pan placed on a hob on a medium heat. Once the water starts to boil I let it steam for about 3 minutes and then inspect the asparagus to monitor progress. A soon as the stems start to show some flexibility I remove the pan from the heat, drain it, then refresh the asparagus with cold water, to arrest the cooking progress, and immediately drain it again.
I like to serve asparagus when it is still warm, although I'm quite happy with it cold as a salad ingredient, and tend to just dress it with olive oil and a little sea salt. More often than I just enjoy it as a stand alone starter or side dish but parmesan, mozzarella, poached or boiled eggs and fresh bread are all eligible accompaniments.
I think the limited availability of British asparagus perhaps adds to its appeal but one thing is certain I absolutely adore it and will never tire of it. In terms of wine pairing Sauvignon Blanc is arguably the 'classic' partner but there are other white grapes I prefer that I think work equally well – Chenin Blanc and Vermentino would be high on my short list but a good nervy Chardonnay in the form of an unoaked Chablis wouldn't go amiss either.