A serious contender for heavyweight champion of the Eat the Seasons year, the asparagus season is tantalizingly brief but the quality is frequently exceptional. Asparagus deteriorates relatively quickly after picking, which is why freshly picked local asparagus is to jet-lagged imported asparagus what dining at a great restaurant is to eating a microwaved frozen chilli on your lap in front of the TV.
Traditionally matched with hollandaise sauce, asparagus picked just a day or so ago (try your nearest farmers' market) requires minimal messing with. Enjoy it with a drizzle of olive oil, a twist of black pepper and perhaps a few shavings of Parmesan cheese.
Earliest records of asparagus cultivation trace it back to Greece some 2,500 years ago. The Greeks believed that asparagus possessed medicinal properties and recommended it as a cure for toothaches. It was highly prized by the Romans who grew it in high-walled courtyards. Asparagus has been grown in England since the sixteenth century (it is not widely cultivated anywhere else in the UK) and during the nineteenth century it caught on in North America and China.
A member of the lily family, Asparagus officinalis is the edible variety of the asparagus family. Unusually the plant has virtually no leaves; the stems are examples of phylloclades (photosynthetic branches).
White asparagus is popular in much of Europe and is produced by keeping the growing shoots hidden from light under soil. The less tender but more fully flavoured green variety predominates in England.
Look for firm but tender stalks with good color and closed tips. Smaller, thinner stalks are not necessarily more tender; in fact thicker specimens are often better due to the smaller ratio of skin to volume.
Once picked, asparagus rapidly loses flavour and tenderness, so it really is worth eating it on the day you buy it. If that isn't possible, store asparagus in the fridge with a damp paper towel wrapped around the bottom of the stalks and you can get away with keeping it for a couple of days.
Wash in cold water and remove the bottom ends of the stalks (with fresh asparagus they will snap off cleanly). Boil or steam quickly until just tender, around 4 to 7 minutes depending on thickness. Using an inexpensive asparagus steamer will help ensure perfect results as it cooks the stalk bottoms more quickly than the delicate tips.
Early in the twentieth century, Professor Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University wrote that "There is a taste which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but which is not one of the four well-known tastes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty." He went on to identify that this distinctive taste originates from glutamic acid (or glutamate) and he named the taste umami. The existence of this 'fifth taste' has only recently gained acceptance in the West, where awareness of it is now increasing.