Anglo-Saxon, Asparagus, brunch, Butter, Eggs, foraging, history, Hollandaise Sauce, Kent, local history, madame de pompadour, Poached eggs, Ramsgate, Roman, Rose Farm Shop, Seasonal vegetables, Sevenscore Asparagus Farm, Spring Vegetables, Thanet, Wild Fennel
Asparagus is a tasty and versatile spring vegetable that can be prepared and served in a number of ways. Although it is now possible to source the vegetable in the supermarkets throughout the year, traditionally the asparagus season is a short one and in the United Kingdom is at its best during the month of May.
Asparagus is an herbaceous, perennial plant growing to a height of 100-150cm (39”-59”) with thick stems and multi-branched, feathery foliage. The asparagus plants native to Western Europe – from northern Spain to northwest Germany, Northern Ireland and Great Britain, are labelled Asparagus officinalis subspecies prostratus dumort and distinguished by their low-growing, often horizontal stems which grow to only 30-70 cm (12 -28”) tall. Sometimes it is treated as a distinct species, Asparagus prostratus Dumort.
Asparagus has a distinct flavour and a long history. It has been used for centuries both as a vegetable and in medicine due to its diuretic properties and reputation as an aphrodisiac. It is depicted as an offering on an Ancient Egyptian frieze dating to 3000BC and was also well-known in Syria and in Spain. The Ancient Greeks and Romans ate it fresh when in season and would also dry it for culinary use in winter. High up in the Alps Roman Epicureans froze asparagus spears for the Feast of Epicurus while the Emperor Augustus created an “Asparagus Fleet” for carrying the vegetable and introduced the term “faster than cooking asparagus” for quick action.
One of the oldest-surviving recipes for asparagus dates back to the third century BC in ancient Rome. In the second century BC, the highly-respected Greek physician Galen noted asparagus as a beneficial herb but its popularity waned with the demise of the Roman Empire until the 15th century when the Arabic author Muhammed Al-Nafzawi wrote about it in his erotic literature “The Perfumed Garden”, discussing the aphrodisiacal power of asparagus; meanwhile, the Indian sex-handbook “Ananga Ranga” mentions the “special phosphorous elements” of asparagus that help to overcome fatigue.
In Medieval times, French monasteries started cultivating asparagus by 1469, though the vegetable was overlooked in England until 1538 and in Germany until 1532. The asparagus tips, or points d’amour, were served as a delicacy to Madame de Pompadour, otherwise known as Jeanne Antionette Poisson or the Marquise de Pompadour. This lady of renowned beauty and influential patron of the arts was the official mistress and confidante of King Louis XV of France and led a colourful life during her 41 years, eventually consumed by tuberculosis.
The European settlers brought asparagus to the shores of North America circa 1655 when Adriaen van der Donck, a Dutchman who immigrated to New Netherland, mentions the vegetable in his account of Dutch farming practices in the New World. British immigrants also cultivated asparagus and in 1685 in Pennsylvania, William Penn advertised asparagus in a long list of crops that flourished in the North American climate.
I currently live in East Kent in the south-east of England and Kent itself is known as “the garden county of England” due to its abundance of fruit- and vegetable-growing, hop-gardens and vineyards and rich agricultural pasture that flourish in the temperate climate. Some 28% of the county forms two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, being the North Downs and the High Weald, whilst reaching out as far as the coast.
Our local asparagus farm is Sevenscore, near Ramsgate on the Isle of Thanet. Thanet is an island at the most easterly point of Kent approximately 30 miles from France, and was once separated from the English mainland by the 600m-wide Wantsum Channel which over the centuries gradually became silted up. Archeological evidence reveals that Thanet was inhabited by ancient peoples, including Bronze and Iron Age, who spoke a Celtic language. One original meaning of Tanet, as it was once known, is said to be Fire or Bright Island (tân meaning fire in Modern Welsh and tan in Breton), which suggests that an ancient beacon or lighthouse may once have stood.
Another theory explains Tanet as a common European construct of Celtic origin, based on the Celtic word tanno meaning “holm oak” (perhaps an amalgamation of the Breton word tan meaning “sort of oak” and the Cornish glastannen meaning “holm oak”) with the Celtic suffix etu, meaning a “collection of trees”. Thanet would thus mean “place of the holm oaks”, for example the Northern French Thenney, Italian Tenado, and so forth. The common names tan, tanner and tannery, would also have the same Celtic root tanno in their origins.
In the 9th century AD, the Historia Brittonum written in Wales states that Tanet was the name given to the island by the legendary Anglo-Saxon brothers, Hengist and Horsa, who were said to have led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in their invasion of Britain in the 5th century AD, and Hengist became the first Jutish King of Kent. These two brothers arrived in Ebbsfleet on the Isle of Thanet. To begin with, they served as mercinaries to King Vortigern of the Britons but they later turned against him in “the Treachery of the Long Knives”. Horsa was killed in combat with the Britons but Hengist succeeded in conquering Kent and became the forefather of its kings.
Sevenscore Asparagus Farm are vegetable producers in the hamlet of Sevenscore, near Ramsgate, on the B2048 secondary road about one mile east of Minster-in-Kent. The seasonal farm shop is open each year from the end of March to the middle of June, selling their home grown asparagus, Kentish cauliflowers and purple sprouting broccoli.
The family-run farm was established in 2005 but the farmhouse and outbuildings are at least 17th century or older. Each day the asparagus is cut by hand to ensure freshness and quality before being quickly brought to the cutting room and shop where it is carefully washed, graded and prepared for sale. The farm also supplies many of the best hotels and restaurants in the area as well as a number of top London restaurants and the main markets in New Covent Garden.
My husband Dan and I visited the Asparagus Farm one Saturday in April during Lockdown and there was a wide range of asparagus from the Kitchen Asparagus suitable for general purpose, to Salad Asparagus in 6mm spears; from Select Asparagus with 10-16mm spears to Jumbo Asparagus with spears of at least 20mm in diameter. Prices are based on per kilo and width of spear, and 5 kg boxes of asparagus are also available.
The asparagus is sold loose in the Farm Shop, allowing customers to select as much or as little as they like, although banded bundles may be ordered in advance for a 50 pence surcharge. We bought a little over 500g of loose Kitchen Asparagus at £5.80 per kilo for just £2.72.
When preparing asparagus, wash carefully and chop off the tough, fibrous woody end of each spear and reserve for stock. For my recipe, use fresh free-range eggs, local if possible. I used local free-range eggs with a deep yellow yolk from Rose’s Farm Shop, Ramsgate, and local fennel tops we foraged from Pegwell Bay. If you store your eggs in the refrigerator, remove them about 30 minutes before you plan to use them to achieve best results. It is also important not to season the eggs until the very end of the cooking process, otherwise they will turn grey and watery and unappetising.
My recipe is a healthier one, stirring a knob of good unsalted butter through the asparagus rather than serving the dish with hollandaise sauce, although for an indulgent brunch or light lunch or supper you can serve it with hollandaise or as well butter if you prefer.
INGREDIENTS (Serves two)
2 Local Free-Range Eggs
White wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
Set a lidded skillet half fill with water and a dash of white wine or apple cider vinegar on the stove on a medium heat and bring to a steady simmer.
Meanwhile, carefully wash and prepare asparagus spears, cutting off the woody part of the stems. Set the spears aside, then wrap the stems in clean newspaper and reserve for the stockpot in a cool, dry place.
Put a medium saucepan on a good heat and, at the same time, boil a kettle of fresh water, pour in a teacupful of boiling water and a good pinch of sea salt and put the lid on the pan.
Just before the skillet of water comes to the boil, remove the lid and carefully crack in the eggs without breaking the yolks, turn down the heat to a gentle simmer and replace the lid. After 30 seconds turn off the heat and allow the eggs to poach in the residual heat of the poaching water. They should be ready within 5 minutes, depending on how soft or hard you like your eggs.
While the eggs are poaching, place the prepared asparagus spears in the saucepan, return the lid and steam the asparagus for about 2 minutes. This method will ensure you retain more of the nutrients.
Remove the saucepan from the heat, drain the remaining cooking water into a teacup to reserve for stock, soups or stews, return the asparagus to the heat and add a good knob of unsalted butter, a squeeze of lemon juice if liked, and a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper, stirring through quickly to combine.
Remove the asparagus from the saucepan and divide between two warmed plates.
Carefully remove the poached eggs from the skillet and place one on each plate, season with a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground pepper and dress with sprigs of foraged fennel tops. Serve with a slice of fresh artisan sourdough bread and butter.
For an indulgent brunch or light lunch or supper dish, serve with a good shop-bought or homemade hollandaise. To make hollandaise, melt 125g unsalted butter and skim off any white solids from the surface. Keep butter warm. Place 2 egg yolks, ½ tsp white wine vinegar, a pinch of salt and a drizzle of ice-cold water in a metal or heat-proof glass bowl and whisk for a few minutes before placing the bowl over a small pan of just-simmering water and continue whisking for another few minutes until pale and thick. Remove from heat and gradually whisk in the melted butter until it is all incorporated and has a smooth, creamy texture. If it is too thick add a dash of cold water. Season with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of paprika or cayenne pepper. Spoon warm over eggs.
For a more substantial meal, allow two eggs each, place each egg on half a toasted English muffin or crumpet and garnish with fresh watercress.