Although, officially, the traditional season for asparagus doesn’t start until 1 May we see it earlier and earlier every year. Cultivated for over 3000 years, you can also find it growing in the wild, with thicker, bushier stems and even stronger diuretic properties – as Proust said, Asparagus… ‘transforms my chamber pot into a flask of perfume’.
Asparagus comes in two main varieties here, green and white. Although in Britain we’ve really always eaten ‘sparrow grass’ in its pure, green shoot form, the rest of Europe tends to blanch it in a similar way to the white parts of a leek or forced rhubarb. Covered with earth the young plants are starved of light and this increases the production of sugars, in turn sweetening the shoot and improving it’s tenderness. We, on the other hand, have come to love it’s slight bitter notes, subdued nutty flavour and gentle crunch with many heralding the asparagus season as the true beginning of spring.
The first shoots should almost always be enjoyed by themselves. Snapped in two, towards the bottom of the spear to remove the woody part and poached until just they only just lose their rigidity, they need no extra gilding, just glaringly simple additions. Bread, butter, a squeeze of lemon. A boiled egg to dip them in. Melted butter, black pepper.
But alas, less than a month into the season and we begin to look for exciting and new things to do with our tender sprouts. All too often they appear in a stir fry. The key is still simplicity. Poached for less time and chargrilled they become even nuttier. Wrapped in Serrano ham or very thin bacon and left under a grill until golden. Cotherstone, Parmesan or Stawley all bring something worthwhile. Hollandaise.
Still, eventually we want more! Think eggs, dairy and delicate, sweet flavoured meats. An egg, fried or poached is always welcome. A rich, runny yolk with a few drops of vinegar is a fine lubricant. Labneh, the soft, middle eastern cheese made from strained yoghurt is a nice change too. Try rolling balls of labneh in dukkah, an egyptian nut and spice mix, and serving with hot spears dressed in oil and lemon juice.
Pork Belly. That wonderful, fatty and yielding cut. Cubed and fried slowly, a handful of spears sliced on the diagonal added towards the end and shredded wild garlic or wilted sorrel to bring the dish into it’s own. Crab, scallops or prawns are good too with their subtle, sweet notes and change in texture. A simple noodle broth made with chicken stock infused with ginger, star anise and spring onions, topped with garlic fried prawns and ribboned asparagus (use a vegetable peeler down the length of the spear for this) left in the broth for just enough time to soften.
The Asparagus season only lasts until midsummer and it sells out quickly, leaving latecomers with stalks that can be a little on the woody side so get them into hot water as fast as you can and treat yourself to a most simple, personal indulgence.