We eat the perennial green vegetable while we still can
Everyone’s going crazy for asparagus right now – and for good reason. From mid May until late June, the vegetable pokes its way through European soil into the sunlight, only to be plucked up and sold by whichever shops and restaurants can get their hands on it.
‘It’s such a great time of year,’ says Scott Price, executive chef at Verre by Gordon Ramsay. ‘All the nice seasonal foods start to come in and you get excited because you can change the menu. But you’ve got to keep on your toes because you’re changing it almost daily [as food runs out]. Asparagus is one of the best ingredients. When you first taste fresh, British asparagus, there’s no comparison.’
As with most foods, asparagus isn’t grown locally in the UAE and needs to be imported. It’s a challenge for Dubai’s top chefs, because they have a fight on their hands to get hold of this prized ingredient ahead of their counterparts in Europe. ‘It wasn’t easy when I first arrived here, but it’s changed a lot,’ says Paul Lupton of Rhodes Mezzanine. ‘I used to have to shout at my suppliers because they’d send me Peruvian asparagus [instead of British asparagus], but it’s better now.’
Peru is the world’s biggest producer of asparagus (followed by China and Mexico); its climate enables the vegetable to grow all year round. However, chefs such as Paul and Scott prefer to wait for the European asparagus season because they believe it yields better-quality produce. ‘The cold weather in the UK means asparagus grows a lot more slowly, so when it grows it develops a fuller flavour. [A lot of] asparagus comes from Thailand and Peru, but because of the heat it grows quickly and doesn’t contain a lot of flavour.’
Neither chef has a specific British supplier, but the area from which they source asparagus changes throughout the season. The vegetable first sprouts in southern Cornwall, then flourishes northward, from Lincolnshire to Scotland. On the other hand, Chef Neeraj of The Address Dubai Marina is more inclined to source his asparagus from the continent, above all favouring German produce. ‘The first asparagus I’ll use in the season is from Greece, then I’ll be using Dutch, then the German. The Greek [asparagus] starts earlier, so the taste is still watery, whereas the Dutch has a more earthy flavour. The German asparagus sprouts at the peak of the season so you eat it at its best.’
While there’s plenty of hard work involved in sourcing and importing the right kind of asparagus, once it’s in the kitchen it’s is a deliciously simple ingredient. ‘You don’t really need to play around with it,’ says Scott. ‘Either roast it with a bit of salt and add a bit of hollandaise, or blanch it in salt and water and eat with butter and black pepper. [At Verre] we’re doing a really nice roasted English asparagus with sautéed girolles [mushrooms], fried hen’s eggs and lovely two-year-old parmesan velouté.’
Paul also prefers the simple touch. ‘If I was cooking at home – which I occasionally do! – I put it under a grill for a few minutes until it’s nice and tender, then serve it with boiled egg or a nice bit of hollandaise. I don’t like peeled asparagus because you lose all the fibre and flavour.’ The same cooking principles apply to white asparagus – commonly from Germany – which has a more mellow flavour than its green cousin. Rhodes Mezzanine serves a white asparagus mousse layered with fennel seeds and garnished with parmesan and green asparagus. Tastes aside, asparagus happens to be an extremely healthy addition to a meal. The perennial plant is high in vitamins C and E (the latter is said to enhance libido), and low in sodium. Six spears provide half the recommended daily dose of folate and potassium. If all super foods tasted this good, staying healthy wouldn’t be an issue.