© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd


© 2009-2011 Quality Eating and Drinking London Ltd

Season-stretching asparagus

Wye Valley Asparagus Spears — in September
Available at a few Marks and Spencer outlets in London

The Times reported recently on John Chinn's efforts to extend the British asparagus season by taking on the Peruvians at their own game. The [London] Times reported too, but because of its paywall, we refer you more locally to the Hereford Times. Their Dorian-Grey asparagus (my appellation) is in a few Marks and Spencer shops, and we hit lucky at the Green Park station site. With teeth gritted, we went into Sainsbury's round the corner and actually bought some of their Peruvian asparagus (for scientific purposes only, you understand).

We compared the two on a simple, and for us typical, presentation: asparagus lightly roasted and served alongside charcuterie. Of course, we had no main-season British asparagus other than by memory.

Firstly, the spears from the Wye Valley polytunnels are a bit perkier than their Peruvian counterparts before cooking: I assume that the lesser travel is a major contributory factor. But what about the other end of the process, the eating?

Well, the Peruvian is still pretty dull, even compared to the receding memory of fresh in-season Britisj. When put up alongside the extended-season Wye Valley spears, it's still dull. No need to change our decision not to buy Peruvian, then. It's like finding one short sound-bite to play from one of the candidate recordings on Building a Library and consigning it to the No pile as a first-round loser.

The Wye Valley Dorian Grey (I'd call it WVDG, only it sounds like some obscure American radio station: in fact, the main Google hit is for a Dutch metal recycler) is worth considering, but it is nothing like fresh in-season local asparagus. We reckoned that it was about a third of the way from the Peruvian to local in-season, and we concluded that it could serve as an ingredient (in soup, risotto or quiche, for example), but for the main event (with hollandaise, as soldiers with a boiled egg, or enrobed in ham with a spot of horseradish, for instance), it doesn't quite cut the mustard (hollandaise, etc.).

But then, there are so many real seasonal alternatives for soup, risotto or quiche throughout the year that I'm not sure we'd bother going back to Green Park, or playing M&S bingo to find one of the other nine shops.

Bread's-hide Revisited

I have been here before.

That was my immediate and initial reaction on tasting Miller's Toast, from Ashbourne's Artisan Biscuits, the people who brought you Miller's Damsels (I expect details of the Toast will come onto their site ere long).

Miller's toasts are like Melba toast, but in large-postage-stamp size, and made from seeded and flavoured bread. The residual liquid keeps them just on the chewy side of completely dry and shatterable, a bit like the pliability of decent biltong — in other words, a bit like stiff leather made out of bread, hence the reference to "hide". The one we tried was "spicy tomato and chilli" — hardly mouth-searing, but tasty, and a good foil for less assertive toppings, such as a cannellini bean dip, but also for other accompaniments. The mouth-feel is initially a bit puzzling for that reason: it doesn't match the expectation of a crisp cracker. But it was maddeningly familiar!

But where did my memory come from? After a while, I realised that they were just like Lesley Stowe's Raincoast Crisps, which we'd found in the St Lawrence market in Toronto a few years ago (they come from British Columbia, as you might have gathered from the name).

Look out for their Peak District cousins as the new crackers on the block, in cranberry/raisin and hazelnut/pecan too. Though it will take a bit of sorting out what would go with which (can't see guacamole on the fruity ones myself).

We found them in Waitrose at £2.45 a box.

Sea aster

From the fish counter at Waitrose

Well, it looks like spinach. It acts like spinach in cooking. But there is a difference.

Sea aster is more a foreshore vegetable than a sea vegetable: it doesn't live in the water like bladder-wrack. But we found it washed up above the high-tide mark on Marylebone High Street, and decided that it would be worth a try. You may already have tried samphire: the PR gurus try to tell you it's like asparagus. Well, actually, it's like a silicaceous green bean, and sea aster bears the same relationship to spinach. There's a feeling that the vegetable has been sprayed (or impregnated) with a tasty version of  WD-40, for it has that frictionless feel on the tongue. But for all that, it's a pleasant taste, and it goes very well with an acid-enhanced fish dish — in our case, roast cod bestrewn with zest of lime. The cod, by the way, came from Thyme and Tides in Stockbridge, Hampshire. This is an addition to what Google recently called Britain's best High Street, and it amply complements the carnivores' delights at John Robinson, Lillie's bakery (which is a bakery as well as the other classifications the web knows about), and the other fine shops here.

The little tray of Waitrose sea aster will wilt down to a very small quantity, but fear not, you don't need much of the stuff. A tray is enough for two. The on-package instructions suggest 20g butter is needed to fry it in, but I used 10g and it was excessive. Be careful to drain all the liquor before serving.