By Caroline Hennessy
Growing up during the 1980s in small town Ireland, asparagus was something I only ever read about. Its name was exotic: the elegantly elongated as-par-a-gus being a far cry from the everyday solidity of carrots, turnips and onions. To me, it seemed to be shorthand for the kind of very grand food that I hoped to encounter somewhere, someday. In the meantime, I armed myself by getting cooking tips from Maura Laverty’s classic Full and Plenty (steam upright and serve with melted butter or hollandaise) and Clement Freud’s opinionated and anecdotal Freud on Food: “You can cook asparagus as do the Transylvanians: cut off the tips and steam them; take the stalks and boil them. This is satisfactory but unsubtle (as, indeed are the Transylvanians).”
Despite all my plans, I have to say that I’ve never followed the Transylvanians, Freud’s or Laverty’s methods of boiling or steaming asparagus. This vegetable is much too precious for any of that delicious flavour to be wasted in water. While I lived in New Zealand I started roasting the slim spears of local asparagus with butter and parmesan, a one-dish meal which we devoured with plenty of bread for wiping up the delicious buttery juices. Since then, I’ve also baked asparagus into tarts and galettes, served it on pizza with Knockalara Sheep's Cheese and hazelnuts, shaved it into green salads with lots of lemon juice and aged Coolfin from Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese and eaten it with roasted king oyster mushrooms and polenta. We always start the season with the simplest preparation – roasting, and feasting on the results – and, when the harvest becomes a little more plentiful, there’s time for playing around.
Although Peruvian imports are available no matter what the season, the flavour of Irish-grown asparagus is incomparable. It’s at its best when freshly harvested, losing much of the sweetness and flavour while sitting around to be eaten. The more local your supplier, the better. That which is seldom is wonderful and there’s genuine excitement every spring when it starts to appear at farmers' markets, veg stalls and on menus. I’m fortunate enough to have asparagus- growing neighbours and years ago I almost caused a chef stampede to North Cork when I posted a picture of the armful that had appeared on my doorstep. While my favourite Good Lifers decided against selling their wares – fortunately for me! – there are now more people growing asparagus in Ireland now than ever before.
When Cork’s Paradiso restaurant veg suppliers Ultan Walsh and Lucy Stewart ran their vegetarian guesthouse Gort na Nain, near Nohoval, I used to time my visits so that we would get to enjoy the freshest asparagus as part of their delectable evening meals. Sadly the guesthouse is no longer open but their asparagus is available to anyone who visits their brilliant honesty box veg stall (@gort_na_nain on Instagram) at the farm. This asparagus is also on the menu at Paradiso for as long as the season lasts. Peter and Marita Collier of Louth’s Drummond House (www.ardkeen.com) – the largest producer of garlic in Ireland – started growing asparagus in 2017 and 1kg boxes can be ordered from their website, with smaller bunches available in select retailers.
Farmer’s markets are good hunting grounds for elusive Irish asparagus – Skibbereen Market is a great spot to find Lisheen Greens’ crop – and the #Irishasparagus hashtag on Twitter and Instagram can also help you to track down sources like Drogheda’s Primal Produce, a Louisburgh grower called Tommy Conroy, Grá Farm in Ballydehob and Kiki’s asparagus, which is grown in North Dublin.
Irish asparagus has a short savoury season: go searching for local and make the most of this most delicious vegetable.