With the short asparagus season getting under way incredibly late this year, I remembered a conversation with Jonathan Cave in the first week of last year’s season, which was incredibly early.
The first week is a stage he describes as ‘a bit scary’. This year must have been no exception.
‘The beginning of the asparagus harvest is completely governed by the weather, and you
never quite know what the weather is going to do, and if you’ve got the right number of pickers organised.’ What is sure though, is that this most luxurious of vegetables, which grows wonderfully well in Norfolk, is many people’s favourite and eagerly anticipated.
Jonathan Cave’s family have lived at West Rudham since the late 60s when his grandfather bought Hall Farm, historically part of the Houghton estate. Jonathan moved back to the farm in 1992 after university and working in London and began with planting just a couple of acres of asparagus. He is now growing and managing 30 acres of it, employing 12 pickers at the peak of the season. Virtually all the crop is sold locally in Norfolk, to greengrocers and farm shops like ours and to some restaurants. Jonathan refuses to deal with the multiples and would rather his asparagus was delivered fresh cut every day so that customers can eat it as it should be, really enjoy it and want to come back for more.
The official first day of the asparagus season is St George’s Day on 23rd April, and by an apt stroke of fate Jonathan’s elder son, young Oliver Cave, now 11, chose to come into the world on the first day of the season, much to his father’s delight. Last year a mini-heatwave in April brought it on especially early. This year, unseasonable cold and wet held it back.
The green spears of asparagus spring from a lacy network of roots, and asparagus is a perennial plant which grows best in light soils which heat up quickly, thriving on heat and not requiring much rainfall or irrigation.
The plants have a ten year commercial life: you plant asparagus ‘crowns’, which belong to the lily family, in well-prepared trenches, ridge them up with soil, and leave well alone for two years before you start harvesting. At the end of the season, which is officially on the longest day, 21st June, you must stop cutting. The plants continue to throw up spears, but you must resist and leave them to grow out, which they do into delicate and pretty green fern fronds. The plants do all their photosynthesis and build up nutrients for next year’s crop at this time, so the fields must be kept well weeded and protected from rabbits and deer, and not cut down until the frosts come in November.
After ten years the plants become less productive and are no longer commercially viable, although you can find established asparagus beds nurtured in country house gardens which have been kept going for decades. The UK is on the northern fringe of asparagus growing, as it thrives in much hotter places such as southern Spain and the south of France. Although asparagus grows well there it doesn’t have the special flavour of the English, which develops through growing more slowly. Although wholesalers at Covent Garden Market can get asparagus from around the world all year round, they will wait for the English to come in.
Jonathan likes his asparagus best simply steamed with some melted butter; the spears are also delicious dipped into a soft boiled egg or with scrambled eggs. A special asparagus steamer is useful but not essential. The main thing is not to overcook, 5 minutes can be enough, you may prefer a little more.
Other things to try: griddled over the glowing embers of your barbecue and dressed with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil; or grilled on a ridged pan, or under your oven grill, served with a little dressing and shavings of parmesan; or you can chop up the thinnest spears (sprue) to eat raw, sprinkled into your salads.