Early thoughts on early asparagus

The British asparagus season heaves into view on St George’s Day, 23rd April, and runs until 21st June. Or so a press release tells me. I must say, I’m surprised that asparagus is so biddable, just popping up like that on a given date, St George’s Day at that. Call me suspicious, but it all seems a bit too convenient.

There are few more heart-lifting sights than the first phallic heads of asparagus poking up through the bare earth. Goodbye winter. Hello spring; summer, even. They are the sign that we are embarking on the last great seasonal feeding frenzy left to us.

Which would be all fins hand dandy had I not already spotted some tips popping up in my friend, Stevie’s garden, and come across ‘New Season’s Asparagus’ at Stroud Farmers’ Market. These spears had travelled all the way from the Isle of Wight. I’m not going to go into the ethics of how one of the glories of the Isle of Wight came to be for sale in Stroud, Gloucestershire, but remark on other matters that arose out of eating it.

As with so many vegetables, the Romans were very keen on their asparagus, but it doesn’t seem to have got here much before the 16th century, when barber-turned-horticulturist John Gerard wrote about asparagus shoots as thick as size of swan’s quills, meagre by today’s standards.

But as with so many vegetables and fruit, size doesn’t necessarily equate to flavour, or to pleasure. I took my fine, fat spears of Isle of Wight asparagus back home to cook. They were spankingly fresh. I could tell by looking at the base of each spear – they all had that “cut-this-morning” or possibly “late-last-night” look. I steamed them, glazed them with butter and tucked into the first spear of the year. And the second. And the third. I waited for that familiar quiet detonation of flavour, that gentle roll of vegetal thunder. And it never came.

The Isle of Wight is blessed with a mild micro-climate, which encourages a number of vegetables and fruits to come on stream before the rest of the country. Even so, I know these spears were grown in polytunnels, which is a perfectly acceptable way of stretching the seasons, just so long as all the other aspects of vegetable husbandry are of the highest standard. And I don’t think it’s the rosy view of the asparagus of my youth – that back then it tasted more strongly and distinctively than the commercial varieties do now. In the search for greater yields, longer seasons, greater disease resistance, growers have sacrificed flavour to the sacred gods of commercialism.

The modern commercial varieties such as Gijnlim or Backlim come from Holland. There’s Millennium, too, from the US, and Stewart, a purple asparagus from New Zealand. Not only do these lack the romance of, say, Connover’s Colossus or Jersey Knight, they also lack the oomph, the weight, to carry off a dollop of hollandaise. If all you taste when you eat asparagus and hollandaise is the hollandaise, then the dish has lost the plot. Democracy, not tyranny, should rule on the plate, and that requires a spear of asparagus that can stand up for itself.

There was a time when strawberries had the same magic.  For a few short weeks, they surfed into our mouths on a breaker of double cream and sugar, and when their season came to an end, you breathed a sigh of relief and began looking forward to the season next year. Now, of course, strawberries have become a year-round fruit, have grown vast and lost much of their magic, along with most of their flavour. Can it be that asparagus is going the same way? Please, no.

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