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Spears of Aspiration

In his latest journal entry, Christopher Archambault deconstructs a seasonal favourite - asparagus.

If aphrodisiacs do indeed exist, the lofty asparagus spear is a true royal with its delicate points d’amour. Elegant, dainty, short-lived and of a hue that evokes fertility, freshness and surely jealousy from lowlier vegetables- asparagus is king right down to its rooty crown.

Like a many-splendoured thing gone squandered, asparagus is subjected to many culinary abuses. Let’s run through some rules of respect and points of interest...

1) A foreign spear is not so dear

No point, (nor pun intended). Delight in the Cornish asparagus season that runs from mid April-June. Asparagus should be a treat to be gorged upon for these fleeting months. The key to proper job product is the short time from picked to plate. Look for moistness at the cut, tight buds and a firm stalk. The sugars turn quickly to flavourless starch when left to sit. Vac-packed hypermarket asparagus from Peru or Thailand in December is a cardinal sin. White asparagus is indeed amazing, but usually best at source. Often just an overpriced delicacy travelled too far.

2) Storage

If you acquire some recently picked spears but aren’t able to cook them straight away, the best manner in which to keep and protect is to carefully snip the constrictive rubber bands, stand them in a glass or container with an inch of water and then refrigerate. Don’t pack them too tightly together and always mind those delicate tips.

3) To peel or not to peel

A matter of finesse. Does peeling asparagus make it taste better? Arguably, but then you are losing some of the texture contrast. Does it make the asparagus more attractive? Most definitely, but more suitable for less rustic applications. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I would say; peel thick, au naturale for thin. On the subject of asparagus trimming, I was always told, ‘The more expensive the restaurant, the closer to the tip the asparagus is snipped’. As long as all those off-cuts are saved for a nice soup, it matters not.

4) The cooking

Not a lot and very quickly, or not at all. Find the subtle, yet natural breaking point, snap and trim straight. Discard the woody bits as they aren’t really fit for anything bar a possible addition to vegetable stock. In a perfect world you would then boil in a special asparagus steam/boiler that blanches upright whilst saving the delicate tips from actually being submerged in the water. In lieu of overkill kit, one can make do with boiling a large amount of heavily salted water and blanching them for 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness. Or if steaming...a little longer. Serve immediately with lashings of fresh butter or quality oil, or refresh in ice water for later warming or grilling. Raw asparagus can be lovely when sliced ultra thin and married with an acidic emulsion.

5) The pairing

Well, what doesn’t go with asparagus? A subtle flavour that lifts, augments and adds a touch of class. Seasonality dictates lightness but the options are endless. Born for butter, quality oils, hollandaise, Parmesan, mayonnaise, mustard dressings, cured ham, crab, eggs, pickled in a Bloody Mary etc. etc. I love the idea of using them as soldiers for a butter enriched soft boiled egg. Add a few drops of truffle oil and phwoar. Tipple? Chablis or fizz.

“... asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure...transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume."

-Marcel Proust

Grilled Cornish asparagus, Deli Farm culatello, boiled Duchy egg and hollandaise

The Cornish asparagus season is about to spring upon us! Paired here with ultra-luxurious culatello- the king of cured meats, smoked over apple wood by Deli Farm and selected from only the finest trimmed rumps. Only the French could convince us to eat eggs with an egg and butter sauce, and oh god they both work well with the earthy grilled spears. A drizzle of chorizo oil and a couple quick-picked pennywort and primrose flowers give total credence to this perfectly simple spring fling. Simples.