When we go to the spring point-to-point it’s a very sociable affair, usually with more time spent chatting and eating than watching the racing. It’s invariably a feast, and the culinary bar is raised even higher if our friend Duncan is there, cap down and collar up, keeping a watchful eye on the spectators while peddling sought-after wares from the back of his car. Any teenagers who stop by, hopeful of illegal goings-on, turn away disappointed, however, on finding that although Duncan is a dealer (a major dealer), it’s in asparagus or, more precisely, asparagus tart. His silken green spears lie voluptuously in a pool of trembling custard, encircled with a band of crisp pastry. You have to get in the queue quick to score a piece of this perfection as his stash goes in minutes and tweed elbows have been known to clash in the fight for the final mouthwatering high.
Along with Jersey Royal new potatoes, asparagus is a true herald of spring for me. It’s one of those delicious foods that are quick to cook and can be eaten with your fingers, dipped into a bowl of melted butter or hollandaise sauce, as you sit outside with the sun on your face. Asparagus also seems to be one of the last foods still sold in season, along with blood oranges and rhubarb; you feast on them for a couple of weeks and then suddenly they’re no more. (Like trying to drink rosé in October after the joys of a long hot summer, out-of-season asparagus is just not right.)
While we English favour green asparagus, in France and Germany white asparagus is very popular, the shoots bought at market covered with soil, since they grow earthed up. Without exposure to sunlight there’s no photosynthesis, so the stems remain white. In Germany, the Spargelzeit or white asparagus season officially begins in April and harvesting finishes punctually on 24 June.
Growing up we had no idea how lucky we were to visit a family friend’s farm in Norfolk, where we enjoyed feasts of freshly-picked garden asparagus and warm pink shrimps we’d just trawled from the local beaches – a brilliant form of exercise for small, noisy kids! And of course we’d not read Marcel Proust’s lyrical description of asparagus in Swann’s Way:
“…what fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world…”
We’d have been delighted if we had, since Proust goes on to mention that “…all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my humble chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume.”
The undoubted delight of asparagus for children, as for Proust, is the fact it makes your pee smell – that and its rude shape made it a topic of conversation my brothers and I could keep going for hours, particularly in a public space and accompanied with much giggling and snorting, to my mother’s embarrassment and shame.
Luckily, we didn’t know asparagus is also considered an aphrodisiac, since its high vitamin E content can increase blood and oxygen flow to the genitals, plus it contains high levels of potassium, which is linked to sex hormone production. No wonder we never got to eat any of our own, home-grown spears, and were probably told we “wouldn’t like them” (rather as I told my own small children that chocolate almonds were “mouldy grapes”). My parents must have waited until we were safely in bed before tucking in.
When it comes to cooking there are as many ways to do asparagus as there are myths about them. If you have full-length spears simply bend them until they snap in two and discard the lower woody half (or save for asparagus soup). Trim the spears to a roughly uniform length and cook in plenty of boiling salted water for two to three minutes or until the stalks are just tender, then drain and eat at once. If cooking ahead always plunge them into a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking process. I learned this tip the hard way in my first job after cookery school, when I left the asparagus sitting in hot water and it merrily carried on cooking until brown and ruined. I was given a humiliatingly public telling-off by my head chef: not something I have ever wanted to repeat.