Asparagus leads the harvest

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The asparagus season officially started on April 23. Eileen Leahy sat down with local farmer Stephen Barnes from Birchden in Groombridge to find out why it’s such a special crop – and also reveals some of the best ways to enjoy it…

In season for around eight weeks, asparagus heralds the start of the English summer vegetable season and it certainly gets its fair share of the culinary spotlight thanks to its great taste and versatility.

Nicknamed the “Usain Bolt” of the plant world, the spears can reach 10cm in a day. As such, plants need a lot of energy and cannot go on for a long time.

The asparagus season usually starts on St. George’s Day, April 23, but this year, according to local farmer Stephen Barnes of Birchden Farm, it’s been a bit mixed. “Our first site started just before the Easter weekend which was much appreciated, but our subsequent site has yet to start. The mild weather in March got everyone excited for a start to the season, but I think the lack of rain in recent weeks has brought the season back to a more normal time.

Stephen, who has run his farm on Broadwater Forest Lane, Groombridge for nearly 30 years, says whatever the weather they always stop spear cutting on June 21.

“The season ends on Midsummer’s Day, then we leave the roots in the ground until September, October to rest and become ferns. This allows the leaves to capture and absorb sunlight, stimulate the process of photosynthesis and return sugar to the roots.

Due to its slower growing and cooler climate, Stephen says native British asparagus has a more intense earthy taste than its foreign rivals.

Birchden Asparagus is available for sale 7 days a week at the farm, open 9am-6pm Monday-Saturday and 9am-4pm Sunday.

The farm, which supplies local gastropubs within a five mile radius of Groombridge as well as a few restaurants in town, has 30 acres and produces 30-40 tonnes of asparagus a year.

Stephen, who now also grows pumpkins, says he loves the “buzz” at harvest time.

“It’s a time of year when spring brings new life and color to the countryside. It’s a good time to work outdoors. But best of all is the buzz and excitement of a busy harvest and the joy we bring to our customers as they venture out to purchase their first spears of the new season.

Asparagus is the first real vegetable of the new season and tastes great however you choose to cook it. On this note, Stephen, coming from generations of market gardeners, calls himself a purist.

“My favorite way to eat it is as natural as possible. Lightly steamed with butter and sprinkled with salt, it is absolutely delicious.

But whether you simply steam it, dip it in a soft-boiled egg, add it to rice dishes, toast it and sprinkle it with shavings of ripe parmesan, or cut it into salads, it always tastes absolutely divine…

SEASONAL SPLENDOR

  • Asparagus is very dependent on the climate – the soil temperature must be at least 10 ºC before growing

  • It’s only in season for 8 weeks (April 23: St George’s Day – June 21: Midsummer’s Day)

  • The right way to eat it is with your fingers according to Debrett’s etiquette guide – even the Queen eats it that way

  • It is part of the Liliaceae family and was called “sparrow grass” in the 17th century.

  • It can help cure hangovers, protect the liver from toxins and improve digestion

  • Asparagus is known the world over as the ‘Queen of Vegetables’ and during the UK season we eat an average of 4.6 million spears a day.

SPRING MINESTRONE SOUP WITH ASPARAGUS AND BRITISH PEAS WITH FRESH HERBS

For: 4

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 20 minutes

INGREDIENTS

30g of butter

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced

3 small carrots, trimmed, peeled and cut into rounds

6 spring onions, trimmed and cut in 3

150ml dry white wine

500ml good vegetable stock

250g British asparagus tips

150g fresh peas (shelled weight) or frozen peas

5 tablespoons finely chopped mixed herbs to include mint, chives and parsley

100ml double cream

A squeeze of lemon

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

DIRECTIONS

Melt the oil and butter in a large skillet. Add the fennel and carrots and stir over low heat for about 5-6 minutes, being careful not to burn.

Add the spring onion and cook until softened.

Pour in the white wine and reduce by half.

Add the vegetable broth and cook for another 5 minutes over low to medium heat.

Add the asparagus and peas and cook for another 5 minutes until tender.

Stir in the herbs and cream and season well with a squeeze of lemon juice, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

ROASTED BRITISH ASPARAGUS WITH SMOKED PAPRIKA AND THYME BUTTER

Simply roasted British asparagus tips topped with whipped butter in moments. Perfect for sharing…

For: 4

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 7-8 minutes

INGREDIENTS

100g butter, softened at room temperature

1 tbsp thyme leaves

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 bunches British asparagus, trimmed

DIRECTIONS

Add the butter to a bowl and use a fork mash until smooth. Stir in the thyme leaves and paprika and season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Trim the asparagus and spread them in a roasting pan. Drizzle lightly with olives and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a hot oven (180°C fan) for about 7-8 minutes until just tender.

Once baked, immediately remove from the oven and place on a serving platter. Top with spiced butter that will melt on the cooked asparagus.

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