It's asparagus season! Which British farms produce the finest crops? Priscilla Pollara investigates.
This year's unseasonably balmy Spring has given us much more than a set of impressive tans and a desperate longing for the start of summer.
It has instead ensured an early delivery of the nation's favourite perennial Spring crop: Asparagus.
The premature arrival of these gentle green giants of the vegetable world, has, however, caught farmers up and down the country a tad unawares.
The British asparagus season is infamously short (May - June), and since the crop is renowned for its swift growth (it can shoot up 5.5 inches in under 24 hours), cultivators have been happily - but furiously - cutting and packaging their produce ready for sale.
But for consumers, this is all very good news. For it means that the asparagus - in all its soaringly high folic acid, antioxidant, Vitamin C and aphrodisiacal content glory - is already packed on our shelves and ready to be purchased.
So whether you like crunchy spears dribbling in butter, wrapped in ham, steamed, chargrilled or dunked in a tangy lemon mayonnaise, there is much up for the grabs. But where can we get the best of these green-tipped wonders? These are lovefood.com's picks....
Roudham Farm, Norfolk
It is in the low-lying county of Norfolk that asparagus is said to be at its best. But who is its most celebrated grower? Tim Jolly of Roudham Farm, nestled near the quaint village of East Harling, a 25 mile drive away from Norfolk's main city of Norwich.
Cut daily by hand in the months of its bloom, the Jolly family care for their asparagus as they would their own children. For despite their premium quality crop being available in London’s top food markets, the family continue to stock a grand supply of the vegetable for local customers at their own farm shop.
Asparagus here comes tailored for all palates: from Jumbo size (stem is 20 mm thick) to a Sprue (with a diameter of just over 6mm).
Tim Jolly’s asparagus cooking tip? Steam for seven minutes and eat it ‘naked’.
Cobrey Farm, Wye Valley
Why? Well, after closely studying the model used by British strawberry cultivators (who profited by successfully extending the fruit's season), Chinn went about applying a similar set of growing techniques to his asparagus crop. With the favourable Wye Valley micro-climate on his side, his modernising paid off and now boasts that Cobrey Farm is one of the country's largest asparagus growers.
Cooking preference? John enjoys an olive oil-drizzled, barbecued spear.
Low Moor Farm, North Yorkshire
Ronda Morritt became an asparagus grower by accident. After giving birth to her second child, she wanted a job which allowed her close proximity to her children. So she turned to Low Moor Farm, her North Yorkshire home.
Told her ‘sandy soil’ was perfect for asparagus-growing, she planted an acre of the green spears on her fields. After two years of cultivation, the first boxes of asparagus she placed on the outskirts of her farm emptied fast. So fast, in fact, that bewitched local greengrocers and village neighbours began queuing at Ronda’s door for more. The rest is history.
Today, the farm employs 25 staff and grows 12 acres of asparagus. Ronda continues to sell her winning-produce at the farm gate, as well as providing a wholesaler who supplies hotels and restaurants within North Yorkshire.
Her tip? Lightly roast spears and drizzle with olive oil, parmesan and sea salt.
New Farm, Staffordshire
This stretch of Staffordshire land benefits from the expertise of the McGuffie brothers.
Asparagus sprouted at New Farm as an afterthought to strawberry-growing in 1985, but since, the David and Stephen McGuffie’s crop has made itself known to independent outlets, shops and major supermarkets.
The brothers’ success, however, has come about from a marriage of tradition and modernity. For despite applying old farmhand techniques to their asparagus, they also make use of environmentally-friendly soil-heating techniques and air source heat pumps, both of which allow their crop to appear two months ahead of their competition.
Since the asparagus crop is ready for sale at their farm shop after less than 24 hours of it being manually cut from the ground with a small knife, it is no surprise that on 29 acres, the brothers have over 150 seasonal workers helping their small full-time team with the harvest.
Their cooking tip? Lightly heat the spears and drench in melted butter.
Dovecote Farm, Northamptonshire
Dovecote Farm is a jack of all trades. For while the arrival of spring heralds the start of the prosperous asparagus season at this Northamptonshire farm, it also is the time that the Bye family – who oversee Dovecote’s operations – pay homage to all of England’s other ripe, seasonable fruits.
From April until August, the paying public are allowed to pick up baskets of varying size and ‘pick soft fruits’ at their content. As well as asparagus (which is also available here already-cut), this farm offers pick-able blackcurrants, strawberries, redcurrants, raspberries and blackberries.
In the Farm Shop, Dovecote’s fresh crops sit alongside other farmyard produce: Dart Valley honey and jellies, pork from Grasmere Farm, Lincolnshire and Wessex Bakery Flour. Otherwise, head to The Buttery, where ‘pickers’ end their day enjoying homemade tea and scones, Pieminister Pies and traditional hot food.
Dovecote Farm’s cooking tip? Asparagus – hot or cold – has to be sopping in butter.
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