Making the most of Norfolk asparagus
Asparagus has been popular in Britain since Roman times, and with spring in full swing the crop’s short season means there are few places you’ll find it fresher than at St John’s farm in Beachamwell
With its vibrant colour and wonderful flavour, asparagus is a real spring treat. A delicious and versatile veg, it’s one of the fastest growing crops in existence - though its season is incredibly short and sweet, lasting only 8 weeks. British asparagus is widely regarded as the best in the world, as its slower growth in our cool climate makes it extremely flavourful and tender.
Situated on 1600 acres of Norfolk’s beautiful Brecklands, St John’s farm in Beachamwell produces some of the finest and freshest asparagus in the country. The desert plant thrives on the area’s sandy soils, and skilled farmer Tom Sanderson has been growing it there for a quarter of a century.
Traditionally running from St George’s Day (23rd April) to Midsummer’s Day (21st June), asparagus season is one of Tom’s busiest times of the year. Sourcing high quality crowns from Holland, he started growing it on a small scale in 1997, though he’s now got around 70 acres of the crop.
“Breckland asparagus has a truly wonderful flavour and there’s nothing quite like it,” he says. “It’s a difficult plant to establish but, once it gets going, it’s well worth the effort.”
Growing the crop is certainly a task that takes plenty of patience, as you must wait three years before you can harvest a single spear. Within the first year of planting the crowns will produce small green shoots and, though it may be tempting to pick them, it’s crucial they’re left alone.
“If you let them grow the spears will develop into tall feathery ferns, which enable the plants to generate energy through photosynthesis,” explains Tom. “This puts carbohydrates into the crowns and makes them stronger. The number of spears you get the following spring depends on the amount of food stored in the crown the previous summer. At the end of the second year of growth, you should have larger crowns with enough energy to provide you with a crop the next season.”
The initial wait is certainly worthwhile as asparagus is a perennial veg, meaning it crops year after year. Once the crowns are fully established, they can continue producing spears for up to twenty years.
However, though growing asparagus can be rewarding, harvesting it is another challenge entirely.
“About 60% of the cost of farming the crop is in the cutting,” says Tom. “Nearly every spear is cut by hand and it’s a tough job, so I gather a hardworking group of pickers to help out every year.”
The skilled team of cutters work behind a rig, combing the fields for succulent spears to slice. The asparagus is brought straight down to the farm, where it’s carefully sorted by size and cut to exactly 20cm in length. Each spear is then graded by diameter and put into three different categories before being bundled, boxed, and chilled.
“When it comes to selling the crop, I specialise in London wholesale markets as they showcase some of the best produce in the country,” says Tom. “Asparagus is finest at its freshest, so I aim to take it to market the same day it’s been cut, if not the morning afterwards.”
Though he takes most of his crop to the capital, Tom also visits markets in Downham and Norwich and sets up a shop at the farm itself. Situated at the main gate, it opens on the day that cutting begins and closes at the end of the season.
“The asparagus we sell on the farm comes straight from the field,” says Tom “It’s cut, sorted, neatly bundled, and sold in just a matter of hours – you can’t get much fresher than that.”
The shop also stocks other delicious delights including strawberries from Brandon Bank, fresh fruit juices from Ashill, and a variety of local jams, chutneys, and sauces.
“I’m a proud supporter of local produce and enjoy showcasing the amazing things our county has to offer,” says Tom. “A local company designed the label for the asparagus, and I even try and hire a local van to take it to market.”
There really is nothing quite like asparagus – especially when it’s Norfolk grown. It’s a versatile veg with an incredible flavour, whether it’s steamed, boiled, roasted, grilled or added to salads and risottos.
“My favourite way to eat asparagus is one of the simplest,” says Tom. “I boil it for no more than five minutes and serve it with a runny egg. It’s lovely served with butter and salt or even with some hollandaise, but nothing beats the taste of asparagus dipped in egg.”
It’s a fantastic food however you choose to enjoy it and, with the season being so short, its important to make the most of it while you can.