Asparagus season is upon us once again. It has been in the shops for some weeks now (mostly imported from Peru) but I find it is always better to wait for the main season and to buy locally grown spears if you can, not only because of the saving in air miles, but because the quicker you can get it from field to plate the better it tastes.
I believe that this can be a tricky crop to grow domestically but I am not talking from personal experience because every year I say I will start a bed in the allotment and every year I forget to do it until it is too late. A lazy afternoon in a friend’s garden this weekend included a tour of their vegetable patch and I confess to to some serious aparagus envy as they are still cropping from 20 year old crowns and already have well established beds ready to take over when these old timers finally give up the ghost.
I am told that it is even more difficult to grow asparagus commercially; you won’t get a true yield from your asparagus beds until the third year after planting so you have no early return on your investment, crowns need to be planted by hand and harvesting is also done by hand so it is incredibly labour intensive. If it’s too wet or too cold the crops may fail or be delayed so it is, like most farming, a high risk venture. In addition the asparagus season is very short in this country – 6 to 8 weeks on average so all your income generation is tied to those few short weeks. Even when things are going well and conditions are perfect the spears grow so quickly (up to 8cm in a day) that you may end up harvesting twice a day – not something the pickers always relish!
In short it takes a lot of hard work to harvest, pack and sell a crop and there is such a limited time to do it in that you start to understand why this is not the cheapest of vegetables.
I appreciate that the strong flavour of asparagus is not to everyone’s taste but I get really excited as soon as the long green spears appear in my local veg shop or at the farmer’s market. I think that Cornish asparagus is a bit special too – perhaps it is simply because it is local but I really do think there’s a difference in flavour from other regions, so you can imagine how pleased I was when I found out that this year would see the first ever Cornish Asparagus Festival.
The festival was held at the Penventon Park Hotel and I have to say that hosting it in a carpeted function room with upholstered chairs made it one of the more formal of the food festivals I have been to but no less enjoyable for that. A few local growers/suppliers of asparagus had stalls around the room as did a few suppliers of complementary foods such as goat’s cheese (think goats cheese and asparagus tarts) and duck eggs and the stage was set, complete with cameras and mirrors, for cookery demonstrations from local chefs.
An introduction to the day from John Keeler of Tregassow Farm revealed the joys and tribulations of growing asparagus and I learned that it is part of the lily family and is related to onions and leeks (who knew?). The chefs inspired us with some wonderful looking (and smelling!) recipes and left samples of their dishes at the back to be tasted. Needless to say I left clutching 2 huge bundles of asparagus (and lots of other bits and pieces) and with an equally huge grin on my face.
I did think about trying some of the recipes I had seen (and probably will towards the end of the season) but to be honest when asparagus tastes this good all it needs is to be gently steamed and served with a little butter and some seasoning, or a really fresh egg to dunk it in.
Ahhh simple pleasures…