Ahead of the Market’s seasonal showcase this Thursday and Friday, which sees a celebration of all things asparagus, two guest traders from the Asparagus Growers Association share their expertise
When it comes to our relationship with the weather, we Brits have much in common with asparagus; we don’t like to stick our heads above the parapet until it’s at least 10C, we’re way too enthusiastic when the sun does finally come out, and we don’t like to get our feet wet.
Just as we keenly (and prematurely) packed away our winter coats and brought out the flip flops in the unseasonable bout of heat we had a fortnight back, so the asparagus shot up: “We could literally see it growing in front of our eyes!” marvels Lizzie Colegrave of Wykham Park Farm, “but now the temperature has dropped again, it’s stopped in its tracks. When it comes to growing asparagus, you can only do your best in terms of preparing the ground—otherwise, you are in the hands of the weather gods.” Do not fear, though—there’ll still be plenty on offer this Thursday and Friday at the Borough Market asparagus showcase, when Lizzie and several other guest traders will be setting up shop: harvesting began at Wykham Park Farm last week.
A spear is picked when it measures up to a seven-inch rule (“we just use a knife to measure it, basically. We’re very technical,” Lizzie laughs, “though nowadays we can pretty much judge it by eye”) using what they call a rig, which is “essentially a tractor with long arms on it. The team walk behind, picking up the asparagus and packing it into crates.” Once picked, it’s simply bundled up and brought to market, fresh as can be.
Not all asparagus is created equal, though—there are subtle variations that the connoisseur can detect when it comes to flavour. “If you only have asparagus once a year you probably wouldn’t notice, but when you’re tasting it all the time you can definitely recognise regional differences,” says Lizzie.
“How quickly it’s grown, the average temperature at which it grew, the condition of the soil—it all has a bearing,” agrees Tim Jolly of Norfolk County Asparagus, whose son will also be at the showcase on Thursday, representing the family farm. “While changeable, the climate here is very good for asparagus—it’s why imported asparagus doesn’t tend to taste as nice, because typically it’s grown in a hotter climate.” Traditionally, asparagus has been grown in sandy soil—“of which there’s a lot in Norfolk,” Tim explains. “The main advantage to that is, asparagus doesn’t like having its feet wet and the lighter soil means it’s well-drained.”
That said, Lizzie has seen her two acres of asparagus grow to 60 since their beginnings in 1991, despite a “colder microclimate where we are in Oxfordshire, which means we’re always a little later than those of Norfolk and Evesham”, and their soil being made up of ironstone and clay. “It means it’s not as light as other, sandier soils, but it’s got more nutrients, which I think gives the asparagus more flavour—but I’m biased!” she laughs. “You’ll have to do a taste test to compare.”
Roster of recipes
For that there will be opportunity aplenty: not only will guest traders Wykham Park Farm, Norfolk County Asparagus and New Farm Produce of the Asparagus Growers Association be ready and waiting to share their expertise, chef Neil Forbes will be in the Demo Kitchen Friday 1-2:30pm showcasing the myriad ways in which to make the most of this beloved spring veg—though the roster of recipes on the website is sure to whet your appetite should you miss it, such as Ed Smith’s asparagus and sorrel puff pastry tart and Celia Brooks’ asparagus with polenta crumb, and Borough’s greengrocers will continue to be resplendent with the green stuff throughout its short season, which typically runs from St George’s Day to mid-June.
The Market’s hot food traders will also be getting in on the asparagus action over the next few weeks, incorporating this much-loved English vegetable into their respective repertoires, including wheatberry, asparagus, pesto and cheddar bourek from Balkan Bites; fried eggs, steamed asparagus and cabbage with carrots and yellow peas at Ethiopian Flavours; bhel with honey-glazed asparagus and asparagus pakoras from Indian street food trader Horn OK Please; and Lincolnshire sausage, asparagus and hollandaise from Mountain’s Boston Sausage—and much, much more besides.