The best ways to buy and cook Asparagus

Published 6th May 2015
Updated 6 th May 2015

With the changing of the seasons and the arrival of Spring, this is a great time of year to source some wonderfully fresh produce. Interestingly, one of the best vegetables, which you may not know is now grown in the west of Scotland, is the versatile and flavoursome asparagus.

Asparagus has always been highly prized, though it is not an easy plant to grow and cultivate on your own. Indeed the self professed father of Scots gardening, Sir James Justice, even wrote about the failures of those who would often try to grow it.

Asparagus requires soil with great drainage to grow and does not cope well in wetter climates, which is why asparagus is usually grown in the east of Scotland or southern England.

These days, the over-abundance and reliance on supermarket bought foreign-grown vegetables has saw a rapid decline on the emphasis of seasonality in produce meaning that a lot of the time growing locally just isn't worth the effort.

One producer, James Mackie of Barnhill Farm in Inchinnan is hoping to buck the trend by not only growing asparagus in the west of Scotland but is also hoping to bring the focus back onto locally grown, seasonally produced asparagus, which he has named 'albaragus'.

Fred Berkmiller, chef-patron of L'escargot blanc and L'escargot bleu restaurants in Edinburgh could not be happier that he is doing so. He said: "A couple of years ago James phoned me and explained that he’d planned to grow albaragus  and I thought he was out of his mind, it sounded extremely hard work and even more labour to add to his daily job. However the results speak for themselves and now we have this wonderful, fresh product that is extremely tasty with a deep nutty flavour; they are crunchy and hard even after they’ve been cooked but extremely rewarding and worth the effort."

"The important thing for me is, I want access to the freshest asparagus possible and with James I will usually ask him to pick the first crop for me, this is always the tastiest."

How to buy the best asparagus:

Picking out the best asparagus is often key to producing the most flavoursome meal when cooking. So what are the signs to look out for to get the best asparagus available.

Fred says: "First thing you should look for is the provenance of the asparagus. Where are they coming from? Nowadays we can see asparagus coming from Peru, Egypt and Argentina. Provenance is very important. We are growing asparagus in the UK and more importantly in Scotland. We should buy it from here, this will ensure the produce is in season and is generally the freshest it can be. This also helps to support your local growers, your local farmers and your local economy.

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"The second thing you are looking for is the aspects and the colour of the asparagus. The asparagus should be very hard and still standing up, looking very fresh and not tired at all. If the skin is starting to dry out then don't buy it."

James says: "Make sure the ends are not dry at all, that's very important and look for the freshest produce available."

How to cook asparagus:

The Romans placed a great emphasis on sourcing only the freshest asparagus, indeed Emperor Augustus created an "Asparagus Fleet" for hauling the vegetable, and even coined the expression "faster than cooking asparagus" when referring to quick action.

Fred says this is just as important today as it was back then: "Ideally you want to buy asparagus that has been picked last night and you are going to eat it for lunch today. When you buy it don't keep it in the fridge, take it home and eat it straight away. Eat it as fresh as possible.

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"I usually like to pan fry my asparagus for a few minutes with a little olive oil or butter or if you prefer add them to salted boiling water for a few minutes and serve straight away whilst they’re still warm. The key thing is to keep it as simple as possible. Don't mask their flavour, too many chefs hide the asparagus behind other ingredients. Try to showcase it, after all the original flavour is what is important."

Fred finds that asparagus is quite versatile and will work perfectly with most meats and fishes but usually suits white fish better.

"They go well with salted butter or with a dollop of seasoned crème fraiche, and will perfectly compliment a good steak or a bit of halibut. The recipe possibilities are endless; season them in a salad with lemon dressing or red wine vinaigrette or use them in your sandwich with smoked salmon or salted beef. Experiment! That’s what cooking is all about. Most importantly, have fun and enjoy this extremely flavoursome Scottish seasonal ingredient. "

James says: "I usually take a dry pan and add the asparagus, it usually cooks quickly so I just add a little cracked salt to season, then when I transfer it to a plate, I usually just shave a little Parmesan on top. Finally I'll finish it off by drizzling over some hot oil. I find this goes perfect with some succulent Scottish lamb."

Fred created some recipes for us showcasing James Mackie's albaragus, find them here:

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Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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