IT'S THE WEEKEND: Asparagus is top of the crop

South Wales Argus: FRESHLY PICKED: Some of the world's best asparagus comes from the Wye Valley.   (5285405) FRESHLY PICKED: Some of the world's best asparagus comes from the Wye Valley. (5285405)

IT’S not often you can go vegetable shopping, confident the produce you chose has made its way there without a long haul flight. But with the official start to the asparagus season just around the corner, you can be sure the only spears you need to be eating this Spring are from just beyond your doorstep.

British asparagus has been hailed as the best in the world, but like all great things, it comes in small measures, with a short season of just seven to eight weeks.

The UK climate allows asparagus stems to develop slowly producing a full, sweet flavour and a fine, tender texture quite unlike any other crop. During the season, not one British asparagus is exported overseas.

Imported asparagus is available from different parts of the world all year round, but British asparagus is well worth the wait for its unbeatable flavour and freshness.

Wye Valley asparagus in Ross-on-Wye is one of the UK’s largest growers and is now the sole supplier of Marks and Spencers’ UK asparagus. Their green asparagus season is now well underway.

Asparagus can be grown from seed but it is easier to plant one-year-old dormant plants, known as crowns, in March time.

Growing your own isn’t the easiest option and requires some commitment, as you can’t harvest for the first two years after planting. In the third year, spears are harvested from mid-April for six weeks, but in subsequent years you can harvest for eight weeks from mid-April.

Asparagus is susceptible to frost damage, slugs and snails and the asparagus beetle- 8mm long beetles which strip the outer bark and leaves from the stem.

To harvest, individual spears are cut with a sharp knife 2.5cm below the soil when they are no more than 18cm tall.

But if this all sounds like too much hard work, our supermarkets and local produce stores will be stocked-a-plenty with the vegetable over the next few weeks, so there’s no need to miss out.

Asparagus can be steamed, boiled, roasted, chargrilled, barbecued, stir-fried, or even eaten raw, so whatever your taste or cooking ability, there should be a dish for you.

People most commonly boil them, but even this needn’t be too hard as many think it vital to tie bundles together, when it actually isn’t at all. Another myth about cooking asparagus is that you should snap the spear in the middle before cooking. The idea is that this removes the toughest part of the stalk, however you will often snap in the wrong place, wasting good product. Unless you are making a smooth soup or sauce, there’s no need to snap.

Asparagus is already on the menu at Abergavenny’s Hardwick restaurant. Head chef Lee Evans, said: “It gets earlier every year. But it’s still a very short season. It’s something people look out for. The British crops are second to none.

“Wye Valley asparagus are world-renowned and it’s just on our doorstep. Our menu is based around seasonality.”

Asparagus is currently featuring in a range of dishes, including as a char grilled starter with egg and crispy bacon, or in main courses alongside chicken, lamb and wild garlic pesto.

“It’s about using it while you can in different ways. You can’t do too much with it because it’s such a good product as it is.”

These tough little spears have also been named super foods accredited to all sorts of health benefits. For mums-to-be, the high folic acid is believed to reduce the risk of defects like Spina Bifida. This same folic acid, along with vitamin A and dietary fibre are all believed to help fight cancer too. The list goes on to include boosting immune systems and even protect against heart diseases.

So why not create some tasty dishes to enjoy this super food in style We have some suggested recipes below for you to sample.

Chargrilled British asparagus and spring onions with lime and sea salt

Serves four

1 bundle British asparagus spears (300g)

1 bunch spring onions

1tbs sunflower or groundnut oil

1 lime

Flaked sea salt

What to do:

1. Heat a griddle pan to hot, about 10 minutes or light the barbecue

2. Wash the asparagus and trim off the wooden end. Wash the spring onions and peel off the outer layer, if necessary, leaving the root attached.

3. Brush the vegetables with a little sunflower or groundnut oil and lay across the smoking hot griddle. Cook for about five to seven minutes, turning occasionally, or until the asparagus and spring onions are tender and blackened a little. The thin ends of the spring onions will get quite chargrilled and crispy – this is fine, they will taste great.

4. Remove to a serving plate, squeeze over the juice of the lime and season generously with flakes of sea salt. Eat immediately.

British Asparagus, Pancetta and Lemon Linguine

Serves 4

250g pancetta cubetti

1 bundle (approx. 250g) British asparagus, cut into small pieces on an angle

350g dried linguine

200ml double cream

200ml half fat crème fraiche

2 large free-range egg yolks

35g Parmesan cheese, holding some back to grate on top

zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

What to do:

Heat a medium sized frying pan on the hob and add the pancetta. You will not need oil in the pan as the pancetta will have enough fat in it to cook in.

Fry the pancetta for four to five minutes on a medium heat until they have become golden and crisp. Add the British asparagus to the pan and fry for two minutes or until it has begun to soften.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet, but cook it for a minute or two less so it’s a little underdone.

Meanwhile mix together the double cream, crème fraiche, egg yolks, Parmesan, lemon zest, salt and pepper.

Drain the cooked pasta, leaving a few tablespoons of water in the bottom of the pan. Return the pan to a low heat and pour in the sauce and the pancetta and British asparagus mixture.

Toss the pasta in the sauce, giving it all a good mix round until it’s evenly incorporated. Serve with a good grating of parmesan and black pepper.

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