Cornish Asparagus and English Asparagus season begins at the start in the spring. We are excited to announce that we have both English and Cornish asparagus available. We currently have in our fridges some English asparagus from Wye Valley Produce. Grown in the Wye Valley near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire by fourth generation farmers, the Chinn family; the land is ideally situated to produce some of the best, and earliest produce in the UK. The south- facing slopes of the Wye Valley which capture the earliest spring sunlight coupled with the light and sandy soil creates a unique micro-climate perfect for growing asparagus along with other top quality produce such as Rhubarb and Blueberries. The Wye Valley Asparagus is hand- harvested and within the hour is hydro-cooled to 2⁰C to retain ultimate flavour and freshness.
The first supply of Cornish Asparagus arrived this morning from Splattenridden Farm, Lelant Downs and is available in rolls of 250gm. We are also expecting to see Cornish Asparagus from Tregassow Farm very soon. Tregassow Farm produces one of the most sought after crops of Cornish Asparagus. The 200 acre farm located on the outskirts of Truro is owned and operated by John and Jenny Keeler the largest producers of top quality asparagus in Cornwall. With over 10 years of experience in perfecting the art of growing asparagus, the Keelers reputation as growers of top quality asparagus has made them a very popular name on the Cornish Asparagus scene.
A perennial plant which is native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor areas, the name asparagus comes from the Greek word meaning shoot or sprout. When fist classified, asparagus was in the Liliaceae family along with garlic, leeks, onions and turnips however; it has since been reclassified into its own family, Asparagaceae. The young shoots or spears which is what is eaten are only available in spring for between 6 and 8 weeks and are a delicious spring treat roasted, steamed or sautéed in butter and garlic. There are several colours of asparagus including white, wild and purple as well as the most commonly known green variety.
It takes three years from seed before asparagus can be harvested but once the asparagus plant reaches maturity, it can be cropped each spring for 15 or more years. Starting out as the diameter of pencil lead in the first year, the mini-spears eventually grow into a waist-high, furny canopy known as a crown which feeds the underground rhizomes with energy synthesized from the sun. Gaining strength in the second year of growth, by the following spring the majority of the spears reach the full diameter of a pencil which signals that they are ready to be harvested. Once the crown has finished growing the spears which is for around 6-7 weeks during the spring and early summer, the crown is then left and the spears grow into ferns. The crowns are both male and female with differences being a slight variation in the flower and the female producing a red berry. The berries are a diversion of energy from the growth making the plant less productive per acre thus the main commercial asparagus varieties are genetic male clones.
The most common colour of asparagus is green which grows above ground gaining the green colour from the chlorophyll it produces from the sun light. Out of the varieties of asparagus, the most labour intensive is the white. White asparagus grows underground with the white colour occurring due to the lack of photosynthesis as there is no sunlight as the shoot is growing. Each asparagus spear is hand-picked as the tip begins to show through the soil surface. The pickers have to excavate around each spear to a depth of nine inches before clipping it at the base. For the asparagus to stay white it must be placed immediately in a dark box. When exposed to sunlight, white asparagus turns pink although, there is a little market for this colour. Other varieties include wild which is thinner and longer than cultivated with a more delicate flavour and purple which is a hybrid of a number of varieties of asparagus. The purple asparagus has a slightly higher sugar content thus tends to be sweeter than the green spears which is often eaten raw in salads. Under ideal growing conditions, an asparagus spear can grow up to 10 inches in 24hours with the outdoor temperature determining how much time will be between each picking. There may be up to 4 or 5 days between pickings early in the season and as little as 24hours when the days and nights get warmer.
Asparagus – “Food of Kings”
It was the ancient Greeks who loved to feast on wild asparagus however; it was the Romans who first cultivated asparagus over 2,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean region with more modern varieties being selected due to their larger and tastier spears. Both the Greeks and the Romans prized asparagus for its texture, unique flavour and alleged medicinal qualities eating fresh when in season and also dried for use in winter. The Greeks believed that as an herbal medicine, asparagus would prevent bee stings and cure toothaches amongst curing other ailments. “Velocius quam asparagi conquarntur” meaning “Faster than cooking asparagus” is a popular phrase in the asparagus world said by Emperor Augustus. Loosely translated to “get going already”, Augustus was a connoisseur of asparagus and it is believed that he organised elite military units known as the asparagus fleets to travel the empire to procure and import the finest varieties back to Rome. To carry the fresh spears high in the Alps so it could be frozen for later use, he employed the fastest runners. It wasn’t until the 16th century when asparagus gained its popularity in England and France with King Lois XIV being so fond that he ordered special greenhouses to be built enabling him to enjoy asparagus all year- round and asparagus to be called the “Food of Kings”.
Today, asparagus is still loved for its unique flavour, distinctive shape, versatility and health giving properties. Containing high amounts of antioxidant nutrients including beta- carotene, vitamin E and C as well as anti-inflammatory nutrients and minerals such as selenium, manganese and zinc; asparagus has become more and more popular. It is believed the vegetable aids in regulating blood sugar and digestive health as well as having anti-aging benefits through the antioxidant glutathione. For some people, the only downside to consuming asparagus is the strong, unpleasant scent of their urine. Asparagus is the only food to contain a chemical known as asparagusic acid which once digested breaks down into sulphur- containing compounds creating the strong smell. The compounds are volatile meaning that they can vaporise and enter the air and the nose. Asparagus spears themselves do not smell as the asparagusic acid itself is not volatile. What is even weirder than asparagus producing smelly urine is that not everyone can smell it. Scientists studying the effects of asparagus on the body are not entirely sure why this is however evidence suggests that not everyone is able to smell the odour with some suggesting that not everyone produces it. There are no harmful effects to producing or smelling the odour in urine.
Cornish Asparagus Dishes.
At Westcountry we love the start of Cornish asparagus season and can’t wait to see what all the talented local chefs use this premium ingredient for. Please take pictures of dishes containing Cornish asparagus and share them with us on Twitter we will then share them with all of our followers to inspire other chefs to make the most of this amazing Cornish ingredient during the short season.