The first spears of the new season’s native asparagus appeared the other day in markets, farmer’s and super. Oh dear. The competition to produce the early asparagus reminds me of that silliness of yesteryear, the Beaujolais Nouveau Run and its attendant absurdities that used to liven up dull days for newspapers in the 1980s.
What happened to that familiar burst of excitement that I used to feel when the first fat spears appeared in the kitchen? When I was nobbut a lad, asparagus would appear suddenly and gloriously, around about St George’s Day (23rd April), setting off a fearful bout of gluttony as we gobbled down fat spears glistening with butter (or even, daringly, hollandaise sauce) about a month, whereupon the asparagus gluttony stopped and strawberry-and-cream gluttony took up the slack a few weeks later.
Out of curiosity I bought a bundle, but I can’t say that I was tremendously impressed. They did not have the oomph, the potent, slightly sulfurous sweetness of memory. This may well have something to do with modern varieties, such as Mondeo, Backlim, Gijnlim, Guelph Millenium and Stewart’s Purple. These are grown for their productivity and the uniformity of their spears rather than their flavour. They lack the intensity, not to say the romance, of old varieties such as Connover’s Collosal and Martha Washington. But also there was the manner of their growing, in polytunnels, which extend their growing season.
Most people reading this blog will be committed to eating seasonally. Not for us strawberries in January, asparagus in November or pheasant in July. Purists may even insist on no oysters in June or cèpes in May and geese only between Michelmas and Christmas. Thing’s taste best in season, we say. They’re at their peak, at their most plentiful. The finest flavoured asparagus I can remember eating was picked wild in the Monte Lucretili, the hills above Rome. They were thin, stringy things, more asparagus threads than spears, but, oh, the explosion of pea-sweetness and artichoke-sulphur. We ate them mixed into an omelette as yellow as marigolds sitting in the sun on Easter Day.
Perhaps I’m too obsessive about seasonality? After all, most of the fruits and vegetables we now think of as our own, did not originate in this country, and enjoyed rather different conditions and seasons in their place of origin. Tomatoes are a case in point. Naturalized and acclimatised now, there was a time when they were immigrants from the Americas (along with potatoes, chillies, maize, tobacco, chocolate, turkeys and venereal disease), where their season was very different.
Even now, their seasonality of the tomato is blurred. We think of them as a summer summer veg, but in my experience as an ardent (and usually unsuccessful) tomato grower, they only really mature outdoors in September and October, making them an autumn fruit. According to absorbing and irreplaceable New Book of Apples by Joan Morgan & Allison Richards, in the 19th Century the apple season began with ‘tiny Jenettings, followed in mid-August by the new Irish Peach.’ Before Christmas was marked by Blenheim Orange and Claygate Pearmain, December by the Cornish Gillyflower, while Ashmead’s Kernel waited until the new year, and d’Arcy Spice came into it’s own in May. So what was the apple’s natural season, in that case?
The fact is agriculturists have striven for bigger, better, more productive fruits and vegetables, with longer growing seasons, since we first put down roots. The polytunnel, hydroponics and computer-controlled glass cities of today are merely contemporary equivalent to hot beds, glass houses, walled gardens, irrigation, and all the other technologies introduced and used by farmers to beat weather at its own game and grow crops down the centuries. And that’s why der spring is sprung early this year, and der grass is riz, the sparrow’s grass in particular.