Cornish Asparagus - catch it while you can

PUBLISHED: 11:47 06 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013

Asparagus has a short season

Asparagus has a short season

In this May issue, Cornwall Life visits Lower Croan, an asparagus farm between Bodmin and Wadebridge, and discover how farming this delicious vegetable is intensive and fairly difficult given its short season

Cornish Asparagus - catch it while you can

Ian Wilkinson visits Lower Croan, a farm that has diversified into growing asparagus. Although the season is short, the results are well worth the effort

Growing up in the 1950s, asparagus simply didn't feature in the ranks of carrots, cauliflower and cabbage that made up the compulsory daily vegetable ration 'to make me grow big and strong'! In fact I don't believe I had ever heard of it, much less tasted it.

My first recollection of this delicious treat was not even in England - let alone Cornwall. In the mid 1960s, on a family holiday in Normandy, we arrived late at a small auberge in the middle of nowhere. The menu was limited but as usual in this part of France there was a variety of crpes on offer. My dish consisted of three pure white asparagus spears wrapped in a slice of Parma ham, which in turn was wrapped in a pancake and served with a Hollandaise sauce. It was simply delicious and I have loved and craved for asparagus ever since.

Up until a few years ago it wasn't always easy to find in England. Most of the home-grown crop came from the Vale of Evesham and because of our climate the season is desperately short - just a few short weeks during May and June. However, in recent years asparagus has been imported from all over the world, depending on the season. At present, I notice that the supermarket shelves are overflowing with asparagus from Peru!

Although the imported product is good and has certainly raised the profile of the vegetable in this country, asparagus, like so much fresh produce, suffers in the transportation. There really is nothing quite like the taste of fresh English asparagus and the faster you can get it from field to table the better.

Most of the asparagus crop in this country is still centred around the town of Evesham but growers do appear to have both increased the yield and succeeded in extending the season, so English asparagus is becoming more plentiful, for longer, in the shops. Better still, there are now a few farmers in Cornwall growing asparagus and one in particular sells it direct from the farm gate. You can't get much fresher than that!

Roger and Gill Derryman (right) are in their fourth season of growing asparagus on their farm in Sladebridge, between Bodmin and Wadebridge.

Lower Croan is a mixed farm producing mainly organic beef and cereals, and I was keen to find out why they had diversified into asparagus - not traditionally a Cornish crop. "We gave up our dairy herd three years ago and we were looking for a crop which we could sell direct to the customer ourselves," explained Roger. "Asparagus was an attractive proposition in that it's small scale and low tech - there aren't any machines or equipment that you have to buy to start it off. Also, I had some knowledge of the crop because my father used to grow it in the kitchen garden for many years." "And," adds Gill, "we love the taste!

"From the initial hand-planting of the crowns - 10,000 per acre - it's two years before you can crop it otherwise you damage the crown and then you have to start all over again," says Roger. "It's also very susceptible to changes in climate. Frost can kill it, cold and wet will stop it growing; it doesn't like the wind and then in July and August it needs lots of sun!"

Add to these difficulties that the crop has to be harvested by hand over a very short period of time and you begin to appreciate that this is no easy option! "Those eight weeks in the spring are really intensive," Roger tells me. "Sometimes we cut it twice a day and then there's the grading and washing to be done, not to mention the selling!"

The couple planted their first crowns in the spring of 2005 and despite wintry weather conditions the plants survived. A further two acres were planted in 2006 and the first harvest took place the following year.

During 2007 the farm supplied some local shops and restaurants but the bulk of the crop was sold direct to the public at the farm gate. "We were delighted that so many people returned in 2008 but it wasn't an easy year," Gill remembers. "There were some late frosts in April and the spring was cold and wet and this held back the crop. We had to shut the shop for a while but eventually the weather improved and we welcomed both the return of the asparagus and our loyal customers!"

For the first time that year part of the process was mechanised. While there was no alternative to hand-cutting, Roger and Gill managed to obtain a washing and grading machine from Holland. "It really has helped," says Roger. "It's cut down on much of the work we had to do after we had cut the spears and we now feel confident that we can handle a further two acres of crop next year."

Even so, the short season is hectic. Cutting begins at 7am so that there are enough spears available for Gill to start selling in the shop at 10am.

"I bundle it and box it down at the shop, which allows Roger to carry on with the cutting." It sounds like back-breaking work but both Roger and Gill love harvest time - particularly in the shop. "It's wonderful meeting new people every day," says Gill. "Sometimes the shop is full of asparagus enthusiasts all chatting about recipes and cooking methods - and they keep coming back!"

They keep coming back of course because there really isn't anything to touch the taste of English asparagus freshly cut. "It has such an intense flavour compared to imported varieties that once you've tasted it nothing else will do," says Gill. "Just steam it - no longer than five minutes and eat it on its own with plenty of butter. Or, one of my favourites, steam it, sprinkle with chopped crispy bacon and shavings of Parmesan and serve with Cornish new potatoes!" For some more tasty asparagus recipes why not visit The Asparagus Growers Association's website at www.british-asparagus.co.uk.

Cornish Asparagus, Lower Croan, Wadebridge PL27 6JH, (01208 841237, www.cornish-asparagus.co.uk

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