Every spring, Charles Foster of Borough Market’s Turnips greengrocers, does a blind taste test to uncover the season’s best asparagus. This year he’s hit the jackpot…
“We think this is the very best asparagus you can buy in England,” says Charles Foster of Borough Market’s Turnips greengrocers. “We’ve been buying asparagus for 25 years, and every year we’ve conducted a blind taste test. And every single year apart from three, this has won. In those three years it came second. It’s incredible.”
The asparagus in question is produced by the Jolly family on Roudham Farm in Norfolk. “They’ve been producing asparagus for about 30 years, but they actually inherited the crop from the previous owner of the land. It turns out that asparagus has been farmed there for at least 80 years.”
British asparagus is known for its quality by chefs around the world, who want it on their menus once the season starts. Ironically, it turns out that part of the reason we produce this most prized of vegetables is a characteristic of the country that most people would rather we kept to ourselves: our famously dreary weather. “Every cloud has really does have a silver lining,” Charles says, laughing.
“The reason the weather is so important is that the asparagus has to work so harder to grow. It spends more time in the ground than it does in many countries, and all the while it is drawing up more nutrients which help create the flavours that we love so much.”
You also need the right soil. To grow at its best, asparagus needs a light sandy soil that drains well, and the flinty, sandy soil found in parts of Norfolk is perfect. “At Turnips, our ethos is based around sourcing naturally grown, open field fruit and vegetables, produced using traditional farming methods. We like to pick out niche products from niche producers – farmers who are still doing it the hard way, because unfortunately that’s the only way to get the best flavour,” Charles says with real feeling.
While it is known as one of our best food products, many British shoppers have never actually tasted open field English asparagus. Most British asparagus in the supermarkets is grown in polytunnels. “While it’s possible to grow decent asparagus in polytunnels, I’m not really a fan of the huge industrial growers who maximise profits by prioritising speed of growth,” says Charles. “For me, it’s about championing the farms that are doing it right.”
Charles suggests that when you get your hands on the real thing, keep it simple: an omelette, risotto or just drizzled in good butter with a sprinkle of sea salt. “That way you get to really enjoy the full flavour. Our unique and quirky climate and the work of the farmers makes this a very special product–one that more of us should be enjoying for the few months that we can.”
There’s really nothing to beat simple boiled asparagus with melted butter or a soft-boiled egg, but a lemony hollandaise, an emulsion of both eggs and butter, is doubly indulgent and the perfect sauce to accompany the spears. Tarragon (usually found in the punchier béarnaise sauce) is heaven, but do go carefully – otherwise its aniseedy tones could overpower the asparagus.