Caterer loves… asparagus

18 May 2006
Caterer loves… asparagus

May signals the eventual arrival of summer to our little island, and along with the sun the asparagus arrives. With the season lasting only about six weeks, demand for the emerald spike is high.

Seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper claimed that asparagus "stirs up lust in man and woman". The aphrodisiac qualities of the plant have yet to be proved, but it does contain lots of folic acid which supposedly helps to achieve orgasms. Most people think it's a bit more psychological and it's the eating with your fingers which makes it such a sensual food.

As well as tasting great and getting us all in the mood, this member of the lily family also offers health benefits. Asparagus is the ultimate probiotic food, better than all those yogurt drinks, because the inulin in the stalks ferments in the gut, encouraging "friendly bacteria" to grow. The folates in asparagus also clear the blood and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Craig James, head chef at the Butlers Wharf Chop House in London, is doing his bit for the nation's health and combining asparagus with other native delights such as fried Cornish scallops, Wigmore cheese, roast wood pigeon and sea trout. James is sourcing all the asparagus from Stock Corner Farm in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. The menu is on offer until 21 June, the official final day of the season.

Demand for asparagus is set to be high again this year after countrywide sales rose 50% in 2005. Sainsbury's had a particularly good year following Jamie Oliver's high-profile advertising campaign. Sales at the supermarket chain soared from 700,000 packs in 2004 to 1.4 million packs in 2005 - a 290% rise.

Industry debate has centred around food miles a lot recently, and because out-of-season asparagus is flown in from around the world, particularly Peru, it's one of the most environmentally unfriendly vegetables. As a result there have been attempts to lengthen the season so that Brits can enjoy asparagus for more of the year without harming the environment.

UK-grown asparagus tastes better than the imported stuff, and not just for patriotic reasons. The stored sugars in the stalks, which give the flavour, are turned into starch very quickly after picking, so the quicker it gets to your plate the tastier it is.

When asparagus is fresh and in season, most chefs will serve it simply with a hollandaise sauce, a little olive oil or some shaved Parmesan cheese. Paul Gayler, executive chef de cuisine at the Lanesborough, said: "Simplicity is the key to serving asparagus. Its flavour should be enhanced, never overpowered."

By Alix Young

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