Short, very sweet and for unbeatably fresh, home-grown flavour the British asparagus season (24th April until 21st June) deserves to be celebrated and savoured. No knife or fork required, this crown prince of veg is eaten traditionally, and rather sexily, with the fingers. Sensational. Moreover, when it comes to healthy eating, every mouthwateringly tender spear nibbled is manna from the sandy soil it sprouts from.
Last year, UK asparagus growers were hit hard by poor weather; heavy April frosts and torrential rain all but did for Britain’s principal growing area – the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire. All the more reason, we venture, to seek out and reap the exceptional benefits of 2013’s asparagus harvest (weather permitting).
A ‘gras’-green cocktail for wellbeing
Asparagus is low calorie – boiled or steamed, 80g or around six average spears is under 20 calories – and it’s cholesterol-free. ‘Gras’ is high in soluble dietary fibre (80g cooked has 1.1g), it’s a fair protein source (2.7g) and contains minimal fat (0.6g with just a trace of saturated) and very little sodium (0.8mg). Asparagus is also vitamin- and mineral-rich, for example 80g cooked spears provides approximately 60 per cent of our RDA for folate, 20 per cent for vitamin C and 12 per cent for vitamin B1.
Infection protection Asparagus is an exceptionally rich source of rutin – a natural substance found in plants – which, together with vitamin C, can energise and boost our immune system and help defend against infection. There’s some immune-boosting iron here, too – six or seven cooked spears contain around 0.48g iron.
Heart health High in dietary fibre, eating asparagus helps lower bad (LDL) cholesterol and thus helps lower the risk of degenerative heart disease. Being overweight inflicts strain on our heart but, because adding fibre to our diet keeps us feeling fuller for longer, fibre-filled asparagus can help with healthy weight control.
The spears are also high in potassium with176mg per 80g (cooked). Potassium, an essential mineral and electrolyte for healthy heart function, is also reckoned to help control blood pressure by lessening the harmful effects of salt. With its high folate content, including asparagus in a balanced diet helps to lower blood homocysteine levels: high levels of this amino acid are associated with an increased risk of cardiac problems such as heart attack, blood clots and stroke.
Cancer prevention Vitamin A and dietary fibre may have a role in cancer prevention. Vitamin A (an antioxidant) is thought to protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals, and some research has shown that high-fibre diets are linked with a lower incidence of bowel cancer but the jury is still out on this one.
Digestion easer It’s the fibre content again – all dietary fibre aids digestion and helps our bowel work normally. Asparagus also contains inulin, a prebiotic, which increases the growth of ‘friendly’ intestinal bacteria – good for all-round gut health.
Cleanser Asparagus has high levels of asparagine, an amino acid which acts as a natural, mild diuretic. Losing excess water also helps rid our body of excess salts and the vegetable is hailed by some as a detoxifier.
By the way, it’s the breakdown of a sulphurous compound called mercaptan that causes the pungent pee smell that many people notice after eating asparagus.
Beauty treatment Vitamin A (beta carotene) is a year-round essential for replenishing skin cells – even more so when we need to combat the damaging, drying effects inflicted by a long, cold, windy winter; vitamin C helps build collagen which keeps skin plump and looking smooth, and vitamin E helps cells heal and may guard against wrinkles – it can, also, bestow a rosy glow as it’s good for red blood cells and thus ups the skin’s oxygen supply. These same vitamins’ cell-building and oxygenating properties lend strength and shine to our nails along with strong growth and lustre to hair.
Aphrodisiac? The 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote that asparagus ‘stirs up lust in man and woman’ and in 19th-century France bridegrooms at their prenuptial dinners were served three courses of the stuff. Notwithstanding, science has yet to confirm its aphrodisiac properties – though such evidence as there is centres around folic acid boosting histamine production to the level necessary for both sexes’ ability to reach orgasm. Asparagus, we know, is high in folate… But for now, its effect on arousal remains a matter for personal conjecture.
Selecting the pick of the crop
Because each precious spear must be harvested by hand, farming asparagus is very labour intensive. For the best flavour and optimum health benefits aim for the very freshest asparagus you can find – ideally, eat it on the day it’s picked. Buy direct from the growers – farmers’ markets and farm shops are a good bet – or, go for the whole field to plate experience and head for a pick-your-own farm. Find growers, PYO and mail order suppliers at www.british-asparagus.co.uk/howtobuy.php
Truly fresh asparagus is bright, bright green with tight, crisp tips and it’s firm (never bendy) – the woody ends should break off raw spears with a clean, sharp snap between your fingers. Leave brown, wrinkly, flaccid or damaged spears on the shelf.
For the full, glorious monty, eat your ‘gras’ the day you buy it, though it will keep pretty fresh for a few days stored in the salad drawer of your fridge (always store it in the dark).
Fingerlicking good ‘gras’
Quite simply the quickest and finest finger-food in the world, fresh home-grown asparagus needs a mere three-minute plunge in very slightly salted boiling water, drained, then piled on a plate to share and topped with a knob of butter melting through the spears. Some add a squeeze of lemon juice, others feel even that’s overdoing it.
For the next few weeks, this highly prized vegetable will be celebrated in restaurants and domestic kitchens nationwide and, not least, at the British Asparagus Festival in the Vale of Evesham which includes Asparabus Tours (15th, 22nd and 29th May), the Bretforton Silver Band Asparagus Auction on 26th May and, on 1st and 2nd June, there’s music, food and outdoor fun for all at the AsparaFest.
Find asparagus recipes, growers and more at www.british-asparagus.co.uk
Written by Ruth Tongue