There is nothing sweeter then plucking a young shoot of Asparagus and eating it there and then in the spring sunshine, not very many make it home from my plot to the kitchen table. And this tasty vegetable has been enjoyed by humankind for a very long time.
Native to Europe, the temperate areas of Western Asia and parts of Africa, this herbaceous perennial is first pictured in an Egyptian frieze dated to around 3000 BC. We also know that the Ancient Greeks and Romans called it by the Persian word "asparag", meaning shoot, and would dry the vegetable to store for winter. If fact, one of the worlds oldest surviving cookbooks by Apicius includes an asparagus recipe..
Asparagus became popular here in the UK during the 16 century, and over time the name evolved from the Greek "aspharagos" to "sparrow grass". This name was still in everyday use in East Anglia until as recently as the last century.
It has a reputation of being an aphrodisiac, primarily due to the shape of the emerging tip, although there is no medical proof. The young shoots of Asparagus are low in calories and salt, high in Vitamins A & B12 and are an excellent source for trace minerals and dietary fibre. Perfect for giving you a boost at a time when there's not a lot of other green vegetables available.
Asparagus is most frequently picked before the buds open into ferns, as they then start to get woody and unappetising. Prepared by lightly grilling or blanching, they can also be pickled for storage as they will keep for several years. While living in Spain, I became very familiar with marinated white asparagus, readily available in jars and eaten as a starter or tapas. This 'white gold' or 'edible ivory' has been earthed up to prevent photosynthesis occurring, making them much more tender.
Growing your own
Asparagus are slow growers, taking three years before you can harvest. They don't like being moved and can be harvested throughout the season, so there are a few things to consider when picking a location.
- Height - a mature asparagus fern is between 1 & 1.5m's tall.
- They prefer cool regions, so coastal locations are ideal.
- Soil - light or medium sandy loam with good drainage is perfect.
- Full sun but protection from strong winds
- Each plant needs to be 30cm apart.
One or two year old spidery like crowns (roots) can be bought from garden centres, or ordered online for autumn planting. Alternatively, you can sow indoors during Spring and plant out after the last frost. These will need to be watered during their first year to help them get established but don't be tempted to take a harvest as the plant needs to develop a good-sized crown.
And there are lots of tasty varieties to try as well.
A. Violetto d/Albenga is a purple-stemmed cultivar that was developed in Italy. Its spears are thicker and sweeter, but you get fewer per plant. Unfortunately, it does lose its colour if you overcook it.
A.Jersey Knight and A. Gijnlim both give high yields. They are F1 hybrids producing all male plants and are more resistant to crown and root rot.
A. Connovers Colossal is a heritage variety that has been grown commercially since the 1800s, and has been given an RHS Award of Garden Merit for its tasty, chunky sized spears.
The UK's asparagus season is traditionally from the 23rd April until Midsummer's day. Spears are best cut when they about 12cm tall by using a sharp knife to cut 2cm below the soil level. A quick wash and a peel of the outer layer from around the base and they're ready to be eaten right there or taken back to the kitchen. The Guardian put together a top ten list of recipes which I plan to work my way through soon.
For those who don't have the space to grow your own, there are only a few Pick Your Own Asparagus farms open to the public. They can be found online, and you may be lucky enough to have one near you.
They do change the smell of your urine. Various scientific studies have found that when digested, asparagusic acid is broken down into compounds that pass through our bodies in as quickly as 15 mins. If you eat asparagus three days in a row, the smell can be very potent.
Having taken on a second allotment last year, I've now got the space to create a new asparagus patch. The first tip has appeared, and I'm excited and relieved the new plants are emerging. Now I need to be patient, and next year's harvest will be fantastic. Fingers crossed I'll get enough this year from my old plot for an outdoor lunch!