May 10 2010
The great mantra of the Glorious British Food Revolution is “local and seasonal”, a phrase declaimed proudly in autumn, when delicacies such as game, wild mushrooms, berries and cobnuts are abundant, but muttered rather stoically in February, when chefs struggle to do exciting things with turnips. But Brits need fret about food miles no longer. Spring is here, and so is asparagus: fat green spears, tips tinged with violet, just begging to be steamed until tender and trawled through a bath of hollandaise sauce.
It’s a curious plant, a more or less leafless lily that takes several years to mature. Thin, sprue asparagus is the early shoots, and should be cheaper, although M&S cheekily rebranded it “cocktail asparagus” some years ago, bumping up the price. Asparagus was introduced to Britain by the Romans, then fell out of favour until the 16th century; but now it is all the rage, most famously in the Vale of Evesham, where the annual asparagus festival draws thousands, and features the UK’s only “asparamancer”, who throws asparagus in the air and divines the future by how it lands.
Any English restaurant worth its Maldon salt will have it on the menu for the next month or so, and the wisest chefs don’t mess about with it. Purists insist that melted butter is all it needs by way of lubrication, although I like a lemon-spiked hollandaise, preferably a lot of it. You might try the opulently kitsch Goring Hotel, where they do the simple things very well. Executive chef Derek Quelch’s menu bursts at the seams with excellent British produce – haddock from Peterhead, sea bass from Cornwall, pork belly from Lincolnshire – and there’s the wonderful trolley bearing the daily roasts; or, on Wednesdays, steak-and-kidney pudding. He serves his Kentish asparagus three ways: warm with butter or hollandaise, or cold, with vinaigrette.
The peerless setting of Hambleton Hall, a rambling old Victorian pile on the banks of Rutland Water, is perhaps the grandest place in England to demolish a few spears of “grass”, as growers and grocers call it. Aaron Patterson’s kitchen has long held a Michelin star, and he can turn vegetables and roll ballottines with the best of them, but simplicity is the key to his asparagus dishes. He buys from local growers in Melton Mowbray and Boston, and serves it perhaps with a lightly poached egg or a hot mayonnaise, seasoned with plenty of black pepper and lemon juice.
Apart from serving top-notch asparagus, both The Goring and Hambleton Hall share another, all too rare, distinction: they are independent, family-run, English hotels. Déjeuner sur l’herbe? Much better to have grass as lunch.