‘In spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to love’.
Not only humans, Alfred!
All of nature in the northern hemisphere is at full throttle right now going forth and multiplying. Ferns on forest floors are unfurling, grabbing what light they can before the deciduous tree canopy blocks the light and blossoms itself. Chestnut trees sport creamy candelabra to attract pollinating insects. Hawthorn trees, long forbidden indoors in Ireland, trace the hedgerows with silvery white. Leafy spring greens abound. In my Grandmother’s house, everyone had to have a ritual three feeds of nettles in spring, as a tonic after winter. From the humble cabbage to wild garlic and sorrel to the more aristocratic asparagus our tables are full of seasonal bounty.
We love asparagus in our house. Not the jet-lagged variety from artificially irrigated deserts far away, but fresh green asparagus from England or Ireland in late April, May and June. A little goes a long, long way. Asparagus spears dipped in a soft-boiled free-range egg are not only a great match, but also carry the tactile pleasures of finger food. Boiled or steamed asparagus needs no more than melted butter to make it a treat. Hollandaise sauce is a classic accompaniment but half our family dislikes the texture of these mayonnaise-like emulsions and therefore ruled them out of the household repertoire. Jamie Oliver burst into our lives a few years ago and introduced us to the joys of asparagus, mint and lemon risotto.
Asparagus is a superfood. Long before modern science identified the nutritious compounds in it, we knew it was good. Our noses alert us to something unusual going on. A high concentration of sulphur-containing compounds gives a distinctive smell to urine within an hour of eating asparagus. Joanna Blythman leaves us in no doubt about its nutritional benefits. Micronutrients like selenium and chromium, Vitamins B and C and beta-carotene are needed as construction materials in a healthy body. It’s high in soluble fibre which helps lower the risk of bowel cancer and diabetes. All across northern France and Germany, ‘Spargelkeit’ (Asparagus time) is celebrated around now with entire menus devoted to white asparagus.
Green asparagus appeals more to us hardy islanders in Ireland and the UK. Its nutty flavour along with its crunchiness gives it the halo of a superfood.
My treasured copy of Culpeper’s Herbal is two hundred years old this year. Published in 1809, here’s what it says about Asparagus or Sparagus
“Government and Virtue; they are both under the dominion of Jupiter.
The young buds or branches, boiled in ordinary broth, make the belly soluble and open, and, boiled in white wine, provoke urine, and is good against the stranguary, or difficulty of making water; it expelleth the gravel and stone out of the kidnies and helpeth pains in the reins. And, boiled in white wine or vinegar, it is prevalent for them that have their arteries loosened or are troubled with the hip-gout or sciatica. The decoction of the roots, boiled in wine and taken, is good to clear the sight, and being held in the mouth, easeth the tooth-ach; and, being taken fasting several mornings together, stirreth up bodily lust in man and woman (whatever some have written to the contrary). The garden Asparagus nourisheth more than wild, yet hath it the same effects in all the afore-mentioned diseases. The decoction of the roots in white wine, and the back and belly bathed therewith or kneeling or lying down in the same, or sitting therein as a bath hath been found effectual against pains of the reins and bladder, pains of the mother and colic and generally against all pains that happen to the lower parts of the body, and no less effectual against stiff and benumbed sinews, or those that are shrunk by cramps, and convulsions, and helpeth the sciatica.”
Imagine what modern Health & Safety would have to say about all that!
Last April, I stumbled upon the British Asparagus website. A treasure trove of asparagus recipes in many guises, it gave me this salad recipe , now gone from the website. Last season, we came back to this salad again and again, and we’re looking forward to more of it this year. Two bunches of asparagus can be stretched to feed a multitude in style. Pickled walnuts are available in Liston’s of Camden Street, but aren’t essential. For blue cheese, I use Crozier Blue.
Asparagus, pear, Crozier Blue, and pickled walnut salad
Serves 4 . Preparation 10 minutes. Cook 5 minutes
2 bundles of British asparagus trimmed
1 fennel bulb trimmed and thinly sliced
2 pears cut into 8 and cores removed
100g blue cheese crumbled
4 pickled walnuts roughly chopped
2 bunches of rocket washed
1 tbsp aged red wine vinegar
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and cracked black pepper
Put a griddle pan on to heat, when the griddle starts to smoke, start grilling the asparagus and then the fennel this will only take a few minutes for the vegetables to cook. Once cooked, season and place in a medium to large bowl.
Add the pears, cheese, walnuts and rocket.
In a separate bowl put the vinegar, oil and mustard, season and mix well.
Pour the dressing over the salad, gently toss it and then divide between 4 plates and serve.
Wine; This website always carries good recommendations for accompanying drinks. You can’t beat a Riesling with asparagus. Your local wine merchant will make good recommendations.
Beer; the good people at 8 Degrees Brewing have just launched a Pilsner called Barefoot Bohemian. If it’s anything like the quality of its big brothers, Sunburnt Irish Red and 8 Degrees Howling, it’ll be great. We’ll be trying it as soon as we can.
To quote the original recipe-
‘Pilsner puts the cold pear and warm crunchy asparagus on a pedestal
– think Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’.
There’s only one question, no, there’s two.
Is anybody growing asparagus in Ireland?
How can I get some?
(Please help- I can’t tag the post ‘Irish food’ until I find Irish asparagus.)