A visit to my mother this weekend reminded me that it’s that time of year when no special meal would be complete without the inclusion of British asparagus. A highly nutritious food for elderly eaters, the delicate taste always heralds the start of summer for our family. And this weekend especially so as I also heard the cuckoo calling for the first time this year!
Asparagus was mentioned by the ancient Greek physician Galen as being a beneficial herb during the second century AD. As well as being a very low-calorie food (20 calories per average serving), it contains zero cholesterol. For elderly eaters in particular, asparagus is highly nutritional, being a good source of Vitamin K (essential for healthy blood clotting), Vitamin D (helps maintain healthy bones and teeth) and Vitamin C (boosts your immune system). It also contains high levels of folate (required to produce healthy red blood cells and prevent anaemia), and is believed to be a mild diuretic which helps to detoxify the body.
The name Asparagus comes from the Greek language meaning “sprout” or “shoot” and it is a perennial plant that is native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. As a member of the lily family it is related to other vegetables such as onions, garlic, leeks and turnips. One of the first documented eaters of asparagus in England was Samuel Pepys, whose diary records “So home, and having brought home with me from Fenchurch Street a hundred of sparrowgrass, cost 18d, we had them and a little bit of salmon, which my wife had a mind to, cost 3s. So to supper, and my pain being somewhat better in my throat, we to bed”.
Growing Asparagus in the UK
The start of the asparagus season in the UK is widely anticipated but hard to predict, depending as it does on the warmth of the soil. As it needs warm, moist weather to grow, the bulk of the crop will be harvested in mid to late May. After late June the spears need to be left to grow to sustain the plant for the following year. If you want to have a go at growing your own, you will be pleased to hear that, according to the RHS, it is surprisingly easy to do so. The plants need to be grown in well-drained soil or in a raised bed, kept weed free and fed frequently. More information can be found at www.rhs.org.uk/advice/grow-your-own/vegetables/asparagus.
Where to Buy British Asparagus
My family is lucky enough to live near to the Frogshole Farm Shop in Kent (www.frogsholefarm.com) but you can find a local provider through the British Asparagus website (www.britishasparagus.com/where). If you are really keen, you can even visit the British Asparagus Festival which takes place in the Vale of Evesham from 23rd April to 21st June (www.britishasparagusfestival.org)!
When you have sourced your fresh British asparagus, there are many delicious ways of cooking it. Our favourites include this delicious recipe for asparagus soup (www.theguardian.com/lifestyle/wordofmouth/2016/apr/21/how-to-cook-the-perfect-asparagus-soup).
The perfect asparagus soup
500g asparagus (no need for the tips if you’d prefer to use them for something else)
6 spring onions, roughly chopped
1 tbsp flour
2 tbsp double cream
Boil the kettle. Snap off the woodiest parts of the asparagus and roughly chop these, setting the stalks aside for the moment. Fill a saucepan with one litre of boiling water, then cook the asparagus trimmings for 20 minutes. Drain, saving the water and discarding the asparagus. Roughly chop the stalks.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and soften the spring onion. Stir in the flour and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring, then whisk in the cooking water from the asparagus. Add the chopped stalks, bring to the boil and cook for eight minutes. If you’re using the tips, cook them in boiling, salted water for three minutes, then set aside.
Take off the heat and puree. Stir in the cream and season to taste. Divide between bowls and garnish with the asparagus tips, if using.