Wye Valley Asparagus, Herefordshire
There is keen rivalry between the asparagus growers of Herefordshire and Worcestershire , Ross-on-Wye and Evesham in those counties both laying claim to the title of best asparagus in Britain (something Norfolk and Lincolnshire growers others might like a word about too). The differences are minimal, the product marvellous, so better to enjoy it and not worry about champion status – or best of all compare and contrast if you can source fresh spears from various regions.
The Wye Valley , like Evesham, has light sandy soil ideally suited to asparagus, originally a wild seashore plant. But the meandering Wye Valley also provides microclimates in the little pockets created by slope and river that make the best of our often weak sunshine in warming the plants, and warmth brings out the best in them as any home grower would testify.
Another advantage the Wye Valley terrain has to offer is the rolling hills that mean early crops can be grown on south facing slopes, and later one on north: the season for English asparagus used to run from very early May to mid- to late-June, but with glasshouse cultivation and changes in the climate this has been extended, and the first thin green spears can now be found in March and even as early as February sometimes, with the last seen in October pushing into November.
It is green asparagus that is the traditional English favourite, though purple is fine too. Our continental cousins often prefer the white variety, though I find there is rarely a middle way in texture between coarse and mushy with white, and it is far less flavoursome.
Not only is asparagus delicious, but it is a so-called superfood, packed with iron, folic acid, vitamins, and fibre. The herbalist Culpepper even claimed it was an aphrodisiac, perhaps because of the shape and the sensuality of eating it dripping with butter in ones fingers.
Asparagus, like sweetcorn, peas, and new potatoes, is a vegetable that needs to be eaten as fresh as possible, before too much of the complex sugars begin to turn to starch. The supermarkets and grocers do their best to shorten the supply chain, but it is unlikely your plastic wrapped bunch in the supermarket veg rack is less than a day or two old. If you can, buy from the farm gate – the best I ever tasted was cut before my very eyes and in the pan half an hour later.
Though it may seem expensive, compare the price of a feast of asparagus with that for, say, a good steak. When the product is at its best, still May and June, go wild and buy lots, and serve it as a course on its own, boiled for five minutes or more depending on the thickness of the spear (sprue, the thinnest, may take even less than five) and freshness. An asparagus steamer to keep the spears upright, the delicate tips well out of the water, is a useful toy but not strictly necessary. To avoid the woody bases spoiling your eating bend the spears near the thick end, they snap at the woody part – don’t bin them though, use them in stock. Serve with a pat of warmed butter to dip into, or even melted butter in a ramekin. And of course eat with fingers (it’s bad form not to).