Purple asparagus: the new face of spring

I am christening purple asparagus as the new face of spring – and not just because its part of my mushroom spring supper club menu on 23rd April (book here).

Purple_asparagusHands-down, asparagus is probably the best first first vegetable harvest of year, so you can hardly miss it off a spring menu. Characterized by its fleshy plump spears, English asparagus has a real point of difference come April, especially amongst the backdrop of tired winter root veg and brassicas, and British purple asparagus takes us to another level. The startling violet colour and the facts that it’s 20% sweeter than the green stuff and has less stringy fibre, all adds up to asparagus heaven.

How is it grown?

Grower Chris Chinn has been growing the asparagus variety Pacific Purple for just over 10 years at his family-run and owned business Cobrey Farms in Ross-on-Rye, and launched the product into M&S in 2007. Producing less than the farm’s main green crop, as demand dictates, Chris’s spears appear around about April on plots amongst the 2,500 acre farm, which also includes the site of a two-hectare old Roman vineyard that the family have reinstalled to produce sparkling wine, Castle Brook, akin to Champagne (also part of the spring supper club menu, naturally).

_MG_8479“The best thing about it is its colour and the fact it introduces people to eating asparagus raw,” Chris (pictured) says about the new vegetable cultivar developed in New Zealand. “We originally tried it out in a growing trial and its taste was amazing – we had great feedback from consumers.

“It’s grown in the same way as green, with the exception of sometimes using trellises, as purple is so tender it can struggle to hold itself up at fern stage. The official start to the asparagus season is St George’s Day [23rd April]. Mild weather in November and December last year means that this year’s crop could be early, if we get some warmer sunnier weather leading up to harvest.”

Why purple?

The colour purple in the asparagus is provided by high levels of anthocyanins, which is an antioxidant said to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. But it’s only the purple asparagus’ skin that’s a deep purple or violet colour; the insides have the same green-white colour as the common green spears, giving it an ace colour contrast when you cut through it.

What’s cooking?

Spring_asparagus_amuse(1)Not a lot really, because, taste, appearance and texture-wise, this asparagus is best eaten raw. The more you cook it, the more it loses its colour and sweetness – even blanching for a couple of minutes leaves it dull.

Purple asparagus runs through the supper club menu: it will be that indescribable flavour in a consommé early on in the seven-course mushroom-themed spring taster menu, using the ends in a stock, and it will be a visual and crunchy feature in a raw spring vegetable salad later on. It makes a good bedfellow for St George’s mushrooms in taste and timing. Both the asparagus and mushroom share St George’s Day (23rd April) as the official starts to their seasons, and St George’s mushrooms firm texture and forest-like taste is brought out by the purple asparagus’ sweet freshness.

In fact, raw purple asparagus tastes uncannily like fresh peas, and makes for a crisp and refreshing purple asparagus amuse bouche, a recipe featured in last year’s Seasonal Dinner Parties spring menu.

Buy purple asparagus from M&S, nationwide at selected stores, and in greengrocers and farmers market throughout the country from mid-April onwards.