Why do we have to wait for the short asparagus season to enjoy this nutritious veg at its best? We went to Wykham Park farm in Oxfordshire to find out
It’s been 25 years since Julia Colegrave planted her first asparagus at Wykham Park. What started as a hobby selling bundles at the farm gate has grown into a fully-fledged operation, supplying the farm’s shop and supermarkets.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the short season. Traditionally running from 24 April to 21 June, Julia believes the best of asparagus can’t be found growing under polythene bags or heated soil. This delicate plant needs a hands-on approach as you’re constantly at the mercy of the British weather. Some of the soil at Wykham Park is clay loam, which is light in parts and lends itself well to growing asparagus.
At the mercy of the weather
‘We farmers are all a bit nerdy about the weather, but more so in asparagus season – you don’t want extremes,’ says Julia. ‘You want a nice temperate 17°C-18°C and warm nights. Those are the perfect conditions, which allow the asparagus to grow slowly enough to develop flavour.’ Once picked, Julia says it’s important to get the asparagus into cold water to take out the heat of the soil. Doing this allows the natural sugars and flavours to develop.
This season should be a good one. Julia and daughter Lizzy expect to yield over a tonne an acre, with pickers averaging around 5,000-6,000 spears a day in the mid-season. The purple-tipped spears are a sign of the slow growing associated with the start of the season; the hotter the weather, the paler the asparagus will be.
It’s a fickle crop
At their farm in Banbury, Oxfordshire, they grow Backlim, Millennium and Dutch F1 hybrid varieties. But it’s not easy. ‘Until you grow it, you don’t realise just how fickle a crop it is,’ explains Julia. ‘It’s either feast or famine. You can have cold weather and no crop with people queuing up, or oodles of spears, which you have to spread out the supply of. It’s a difficult crop to supply, and it’s not for the faint hearted.’
Demand for asparagus has grown by 540% in the past decade, and last year we reportedly spent £65 million on nine million kg asparagus. No pressure on the growers, then! ‘The season heralds the arrival of better weather – it’s full of promise. No crop draws people in like asparagus – there’s more excitement about the season than any other crop,’ says Julia.
The nutrition lowdown
Asparagus has great nutritional benefits. It provides vitamin B folate, an essential nutrient for women planning to have a baby, and those who are in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. And five spears (around 125g and 32kcal) supply more than one day’s recommendation for folate for both men and women. Asparagus also provides antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which help keep eyes healthy.
3 delicious ways to enjoy asparagus
1. Toss spears in a little toasted sesame oil, then cook on a hot griddle pan for 3-5 min, turning occasionally, until tender. Scatter with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and serve with a couscous salad.
2. Make a primavera pasta sauce with lightly cooked peas, asparagus and baby carrots. Toss with cooked tagliatelle, reduced-fat crème fraîche, a grating of lemon zest and a sprinkle of parmesan shavings.
3. Soft boil an egg and use your spears for dipping instead of your usual soldiers.