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Issue 63 - Desire and Reverence

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


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Desire and Reverence

Sue Lawrence gives us an excellent asparagus recipe

There is more than a little haughtiness about an asparagus spear. This is not simply due to its preference for being packaged and cooked upright, but also the way it grows. Tall, slender and elegant, asparagus spears stand loftily above the ground with the verticality of a catwalk model. They appear also to share with the models some innate desire to be treated with deep reverence. Both have a propensity for being well-dressed: Armani for the girls, hollandaise for the spears.

The reverential treatment of asparagus is justifiable when you consider how long it takes to grow.

Depending on conditions, there is a period of at least two years from planting to cutting. If the soil and the weather are not perfect, the asparagus will be inferior. And in the cut-throat world of asparagus growing, there is no second-best.

The spears are graded, but according to size, not quality: Sprue is the finest, then Choice or 'Select' then Jumbo, the fattest of the lot.

Ideal asparagus-growing soil is basically sandy but with sufficient body to retain moisture.

During the short asparagus season in Scotland, I like to buy mine from the Pattullos, Heather and Sandy, who have been producing asparagus commercially at Eassie Farm by Glamis in Tayside for a couple of decades. The season in Scotland generally runs from the second week of May until the third week of June. Heather’s favourite method of cooking is to boil or steam then serve with hollandaise, although she also likes it roasted with olive oil. Since Pattullo’s asparagus is all picked at the top of the hard white part of the stem (unlike some other growers), it requires no peeling.

I simply bend it until it snaps to remove the woody end, or keep it on as I boil then use the thick end to hold between fingers and thumb for dipping into a sauce.

In this country, we prefer our spears green with a glorious purple hue on the tips. But on mainland Europe, they prefer them white.

Deprived of the light during its final growing stage, white asparagus is cut below ground (it is grown in raised ridges) so it is never exposed to the sunshine. Our own green spears soak up the sun’s rays for two to three days (six to seven if it is cold) in order to acquire their grass-green suntan and also much of their flavour. The Germans and French might revere the white spears more than we do, but to my taste their flavour is simply far too delicate.

No, give me our sun-tanned green spears any day. Especially if, like me, you have had the dubious pleasure of attending a 'Spargelfest' in Germany, where you commence lunch with pallid, sun-shy asparagus and end up, five courses later, still dipping the white spears reluctantly into puddles of butter. During the months of May and June, whole villages in Germany are dedicated to 'Spargel essen', which might be good news for local restaurateurs but tedious if you would really rather be back in Britain tucking into fat green spears instead.

In her new book What To Eat, (Fourth Estate, £16.99) a must-have guide on what in these days of too much choice, Joanna Blythman also offers tips on 'how to eat'. In her Asparagus section, she suggests roasting or griddling it then anointing with olive oil and shavings of parmesan, serving steamed spears with a hollandaise sauce or using lightly cooked sprues in a salad with crispy bacon, soft boiled egg and croutons. Yum

Asparagus Tarte Tatin
serves 4

Tarte tatins are not as difficult as some people imagine. All you need is a reliably solid pan and a deft touch.

When it is time to invert the tart onto the serving dish, invert quickly then give a good firm shake - just once - and the tart will emerge from the base onto the dish. If not, just patch it up.

4 tbsp olive oil
450g / 1 lb onion, peeled, very thinly sliced
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar (the more aged the better)
300 - 350 g / 10½ - 12 oz asparagus
125 g / 4½ oz farmhouse Cheddar cheese

For the pastry: 250g / 9 oz plain flour, sifted
125 g / 4½ oz unsalted butter, chilled, diced

For the pastry, place the flour and a pinch of salt in a food processor, add the butter and process until it resembles breadcrumbs. Slowly add just enough water ( about 60 - 75 ml / 2½ - 3½ fl oz ) for it to form small balls then remove , wrap in clingfilm and chill briefly.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp oil in a saucepan and add the onions.

Cook them over a very low heat for about 30 minutes, until golden and caramelised, stirring often. Remove from the heat and stir in the vinegar and some salt and pepper.

Snap off any woody ends from the asparagus and place on an oven tray. Toss in the remaining 2 tbsp oil and roast at the top of a preheated oven (200C / 425F Gas 7 ) for about 10 minutes or until tender. Reduce the oven to 190C / 375F / Gas5.

Arrange the spears neatly into the based of an oiled 26cm / 10 inch tarte tatin dish I like to place them tucked side by side, alternating end to end. Ensure the dish is oiled up the sides too.

Top with the onion mixture then coarsely grate or crumble the cheese and scatter over the top.

Roll out the pastry to a circle slightly larger than the size of the dish. Place over the cheese and tuck down the sides, all around.

(Remember it will be inverted to form the crust ) Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until light golden brown. Loosen the edges, wait for three to four minutes then quickly and deftly invert onto the serving dish.

Serve warm.