Fresh Norfolk asparagus - from field to fork in less than an hour
With just a couple of weeks until the season officially begins, it won't be long before we're all tucking into field fresh asparagus, a seasonal delicacy held in high regard since the Roman times.
But some restaurants and shops are already offering customers a sneak preview of the springtime favourite thanks to Norfolk farmer Tom Sanderson, who picked his first crop – grown under polythene – this week.
The farmer, from Beachamwell, near Swaffham, is working with The Berney Arms in nearby Barton Bendish to give diners the freshest asparagus possible – from field to fork in less than an hour.
Once the season is in full swing, Tom will harvest up to four tonnes a day.
'Most of our asparagus goes to Covent Garden and Spitalfields Market, but we also supply many local shops and wholesalers and sell at the farm gate – you can't get fresher than that,' he said.
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'We take around three tonnes down to London every night ready for the markets to open early the next morning.'
Tom, who also produces lamb, wheat, barley, potatoes and sugar beet, began growing asparagus on a small scale 15 years ago and now has 80 acres of the crop.
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'The most difficult aspect is providing a continuous supply,' he said. 'It relies entirely on soil temperature to grow. Asparagus likes really light, free-running soil and this area is particularly suitable because we are on the Breckland sands.
'The rain will cool the soil and slow down its growth for a couple of days, but it doesn't make much difference – asparagus is one of the fastest growing plants in the world.'
The asparagus is delivered to the pub as soon as it's cut and head chef Derek Byrne is often waiting in the yard, keen to get his hands on one of his most popular ingredients.
'It's amazing how well it sells when it's on the menu,' Derek said. 'However you choose to cook it –poached, steamed or chargrilled – I always say the simpler the better. I keep things fairly classic, but with a twist. The main twist has to be on the presentation – you can't mess around with the ingredients too much. Our emphasis is on keeping it fresh and local.'
Derek makes soups and tarts with asparagus as well as serving it as an accompaniment to main meals such as pork belly with apple sauce, but prefers to let the ingredient speak for itself.
He prepared a mouthwatering plate of asparagus with crispy bacon, smokey tomato chutney, balsamic vinegar and a classic hollandaise sauce, topped with a poached free range egg and rocket.
Derek started by cutting off the woody bottoms and carefully peeling the stems before plunging them in boiling water.
'I cook the asparagus for only a minute,' he said. 'I then put it straight into iced water to stop it from cooking any further and to keep its colour. Once it's off the field, the sooner it's served the better,' he continued. 'Hollandaise sauce is the perfect accompaniment, although I do have a few more surprises up my sleeve!'
The last day of picking is traditionally June 21 – the longest day of the year.
The spears are allowed to grow into ferns and spend the summer storing up energy in their long roots ready for next year's season.
Tom said: 'Asparagus can only be stored for a limited amount of time. Imports from places like Peru and Spain will come in, but when you buy English you know it's not got many food miles. Nothing is going to taste as good as something cut that day.'