Traditionally, the asparagus season is a brief one, running from late April until late June depending on how our British weather behaves. But thanks to milder winters and clever growers, that season is getting longer.
One producer who’s really put some thought into fighting the overseas competition is the Chinn Family, who grow asparagus in the Wye Valley in Herefordshire. This year, because of the ultra-mild winter, I was offered their first small crop of asparagus in late January. Psychologically, it just didn't feel quite right to find asparagus so early in the year, so even though it tasted fantastic I left it a few weeks before getting it on the menu, which was still way ahead of time.
Three years ago I received a box of asparagus in September from the Chinns, and presumed they were having a bit of fun with me. What I learnt was that the Chinns had managed to cultivate a second season crop of asparagus. For me, this changed the way we wrote menus in the late summer and autumn months. Some restaurants may have imported asparagus all year round, but for me it’s always been a spring thing. However, being able to offer British spears twice a year is a great celebration of the way British farmers are working these days.
At the restaurants, we showcase the in-season spears in a section of their own on the menu. There are weekly changing dishes including steamed asparagus with classic Hollandaise, and a salad that incorporates cooked tips and raw, thinly shaved stems with leaves of wild pennywort. We occasionally stick an asparagus fondue on the bar menu with a dipping sauce made with Black Cow Cheddar from Dorset with a splash of Black Cow Vodka (made with the by-product of the whey from the cheddar). If you wait until asparagus is in season, then indulging in dishes like these is a true celebration of British produce.
Shaved asparagus and Cashel blue salad (serves 4)
This dish is a fantastic and tasty alternative at a dinner party – especially for those friends who may have never tried raw asparagus before!
- 8 thick stems of asparagus, woody ends trimmed
- A couple of handfuls of small tasty salad leaves and herbs, washed and dried
- 120g Cashel blue cheese
For the dressing
- 30ml cider or white wine vinegar
- 2tsp Tewkesbury or Dijon mustard
- 40g Cashel blue cheese
- 20ml vegetable oil
- 30ml water
- To make the dressing, blend all of the ingredients in a liquidiser, season to taste and adjust the consistency with a little water if it is too thick.
- Cut the asparagus into long strips as thinly as possible on the angle; you can also shave it into long strips with a mandolin or use a peeler, though be careful of cutting your fingers!
- Leave in iced water for 20 minutes, then drain and dry.
- To serve, arrange the salad leaves and asparagus on serving plates, spoon over the dressing and break the cheese into nuggets on top.