Tender, juicy and full of flavour, the UK grows asparagus that is some of the best in the world.
There is perhaps no greater ringing endorsement of spring than the bunches of asparagus that start popping up in farm shops around the country in late April. Even the supermarkets get in on the act, and the miserable little South American tips are replaced by fat bundles of green spears emblazoned with the Union Jack. But there is good reason to put in more than the usual effort when seeking out this British champion. Asparagus contains natural sugars that start to deplete as soon as it is harvested; it is this troublesome characteristic that have led many to take the kitchen to the field, allowing them to cook it immediately over a portable stove. Such effort is probably beyond most of us (unless you are growing your own), but with a little local research you can get close to this ideal.
I’m lucky enough to live in Cornwall, where the asparagus season (and indeed most growing seasons) kicks off earlier than the rest of the UK, often as early as mid April. A few years ago, I chanced upon a fabulous local grower with the enigmatic name of Jax Buse. Jax started St Enodoc asparagus (named after the 16th century church nestled amongst the nearby sand dunes) over 20 years ago, and grows fabulous tasting non-commercial varieties that have to be seen (and tasted) to be believed. Great big, thick spears that are tender and sweet all the way down to the base, the flavour is enhanced by the natural salt that is blown from the sea across the fields and the warm micro climate the farm enjoys. Asparagus is like a toddler – it’s at it’s happiest by the seaside, and actually grows wild on many Cornish cliffs (asparagus, not toddlers).
The high quality and flavour of St Enodoc asparagus has seen chefs across the country clambering to get hold of it; if you’d been lucky enough to enjoy a plate of asparagus at The Ivy a few years ago (under Mark Hix) it could have been grown by Jax. Local Cornwall chefs Nathan Outlaw in Rock and Andy Appleton (Fifteen Cornwall) have also championed Jax’s produce. More and more St Enodoc is being namechecked on the menu, and is fast becoming another recognised quality Cornish food brand.
Finding your own local grower is relatively straightforward – the website of the British Asparagus Growers’ Association has a tool here to find the nearest in your county (including options for ‘pick your own’ to guarantee real freshness), or alternatively just keep an eye out for the signs advertising local growers as you drive through the countryside. It goes without saying, eat it as soon as you can – if you do have to store asparagus, put it upright in a little water in the refrigerator.
I’d go with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s suggestion that asparagus should be served as simply as possible when it first becomes available. Steam it in small bundles for around 3-6 minutes (the fresher it is, the less time it needs) then serve with crunchy Maldon sea salt and butter. As the seasons progresses and you feel the need for a change, try thin ribbon-like shavings of raw asparagus with a little grated lemon zest, thinly sliced yellow Scotch Bonnet chillies (or Aji Limon chillies if you prefer a milder heat), sea salt and British cold pressed rapeseed oil: