I am going to be unashamedly unoriginal and write about the obvious – which happens to be one one of my annual favourites – asparagus.
We live in one of the country’s best asparagus growing regions and here at the Café and Bistro we like to show our love of the local spears by putting them on the menu every single day throughout their all too brief 5-6 week period of being “en primeur”. Once the season comes to and end, we feel we have done them proud and are content not to cook with asparagus until next spring. By taking this approach to British fruit and veg, we are able to support our small, local suppliers. We were bemused by the courgette and salad “crisis” earlier this year. Any growing area can be struck down by bad weather and this will inevitably lead to a shortage of produce. Tender salad leaves and courgettes will be coming into season here in the next few months, and that is the time to enjoy them. Nothing matches the superior flavour, texture and nutrient levels of produce which has been recently harvested, as opposed to having spent 48 hours in a chilled lorry, journeying across Europe.
To paraphrase the verbally challenged former POTUS, George W Bush, there is no word for “en primeur” in the English language. Sadly, this also means that there is no real tradition of celebrating the arrival of a new fruit or vegetables the way most other parts of Europe do.
Few British crops deserve to have their arrival on the culinary scene announced by drum rolls and fanfares more than asparagus.
The tender spears can put on up to 30cm growth in a 24-hour cycle, making the brief season a rather stressful period for growers. No sooner has one lot been harvested than new rows of calf-high spears call for attention.
Freshly cooked, new season asparagus have a sweet, yet sharp grassy flavour, unlike any other vegetable. Eaten raw, the flavour is a shock to the taste buds, so identical is it to the taste of freshly shelled green peas. We like the taste of raw asparagus so much that we add shavings whenever we can in our salads, teaming it with tender broad beans, lemon, mint and fresh goats curd.
Different cooking methods will bring out quite different aspects of flavour. What won’t be affected by the cooking method is the immediate and unavoidable effect on bladder content. It takes only one spear to add an unmissable whiff. For those in love with asparagus, it is a well known consequence but nevertheless one which tends to cause a jolt of surprise very single time.
Swiftly moving on to matters more sophisticated, musing on which wine with which to partner ones asparagus is a joy. The go-to grape tends to be Sauvignon Blanc, on account of its high acidity and very similar flavour to asparagus. However, depending on how the spears are cooked, this is far from the only wine choice.
If the spears are served cold, with a white wine vinaigrette, it is important to find a wine which can cope with the extreme acidity yet won’t compete with the delicate flavour of the asparagus. We like to pair asparagus vinaigrette with our house Italian, a clean Verdicchio from our Producer Vignamato in Le Marche. We chose this white from one of our small team of Producer precisely because it makes such a good accompaniment for all things acidic and citrus. We use both liberally it in our salads and our Japanese and Swedish influenced food. The clean, crisp fruit driven Verdicchio is perfect for that.
When matching asparagus with melted butter, egg or mayo, the increased richness welcomes crisp, unoaked Chardonnay such as a good Chablis.
Going the full emollient hog with Hollandaise or soft-boiled or poached eggs to dip the spears in – an oaked Chardonnay from the heart of Bourgogne or even a Champagne is a great match.
We have been busy creating a 5-course menu for our big April Food&Wine event, featuring our partners Suffolk Vineyards. The third tasting dinner in our spring series, this is possibly the most exciting, as we are bringing to Cambridge the artisan house of Fox&Fox from Sussex.
For us it was love at first sight when we were introduced to this small scale “méthode Champenoise” fizz. We are particularly excited about matching their amazing pink, a saigné with added savoury depth from Pinot Noir, as an accompaniment to new season lamb, tender chicken and Italian “Coppa” – similar to Prosciutto, but better, and made not from the ham but fom the collar and, in our case, sourced from our wonderful suppliers of high welfare meat up in Rutland.
With so amuch amazing British produce to enjoy, who needs imported salad leaves?