Chris Arnot visits the one place in England to take full advantage the asparagus season
In the Vale of Evesham right now, the roadsides are frothing with cow parsley. Outside the pubs and hotels, meanwhile, are blackboards advertising locally-grown asparagus.
Sparrow-grass, as it’s known in these parts, has become largely a local speciality – very different from the days just after the second world war when tons of the delicately-flavoured shoots would be despatched by train to London. Cheaper imports have taken their toll.
“People want to eat sparrow-grass and strawberries at Christmas these days,” I was told by one disgruntled grower with a weatherbeaten face the colour of red clay. “But they don’t taste of nothing.” The 240 acres of the Vale once devoted to the commercial production of asparagus has dwindled dramatically. Luckily for visitors, though, there are still enough under cultivation to meet demand during the comparatively short English season.
A week tomorrow, carefully-tethered bundles will be piled high on a long trestle table in the yard of the Fleece Inn, Bretforton, as the annual asparagus auction gets under way. Proceeds will go to the village band. There’s another auction on the next Sunday (June 4) on behalf of the local church fund. The auction usually finds the chef from the prestigious Lygon Arms at Broadway rubbing shoulders with the landlord of the Round o’ Gras’ and various market traders from Birmingham.
Owned by the National Trust, the 15th-century Fleece Inn is one of an endangered species in rural England – an unspoilt village local. Enthusiastic visitors tuck into gammon and asparagus in flagstoned side rooms while regulars stand at the bar, supping Piddle in the Wind, an ale brewed across the Vale at Wyre Piddle.
It would be nice to report that the Round o’ Gras’ at nearby Badsey was equally unspoilt. After all, it is the best-known asparagus pub of all, as its name suggests.
Unfortunately, the interior has been the victim of rather too many refurbishments, to the point where the decor has become vaguely reminiscent of a Beefeater Steakhouse. All rather different from the pub’s heyday under Buster Mustow, the bewhiskered and florid-faced former landlord who built up the trade here from the mid-1960s. At a time when exclusive restaurants were offering small bundles of asparagus at big prices, he offered what he called “proper country portions”. Word spread. Between 1967 and his retirement in 1987, Buster shifted 20 tons of sparrow-grass in as many years.
“In Buster’s time, about 70% of the village earned their livings through the market gardens,” local blacksmith Dave Caswell told me. Now 60, Dave has been making asparagus-cutting knives here for 45 years.
Dave led the way out of the back of the forge, past a pile of rusting horse shoes into a surprisingly long garden. At the bottom was a sizeable patch devoted entirely to sparrow-grass. The blacksmith made a swift incision into a ridge, sliced through the root and extracted a perfect specimen – purple at the tip, white at the stem. “You should boil asparagus with a sprig of mint and serve it with melted butter or a bit of gammon fat,” he said, salivating at the thought.
Bearing this in mind, I set off back towards the M5. But you shouldn’t leave the Vale without calling in at Pershore, a country town with a fine medieval abbey, elegant Georgian streets, expansive water meadows and ancient footbridges over the River Avon. Rumour has it that this is the real-life Borchester in The Archers, though don’t bother trying to find the equivalent of Underwood’s department store or the sink estate to which the Grundys have been banished since their eviction from Ambridge.
Pershore is famous throughout the Midlands for the quality of its plums. Every year it stages a festival dedicated to the fruit in one of the main streets.
Being in the Vale of Evesham makes you conscious that fruit and veg was once a seasonal business in England.
For now, the product demanding attention is asparagus. Tuck in and enjoy while you can.
Steam or boil the aspargus while at the same time frying one or two eggs per person in a generous mixture of olive oil and butter. When the egg yolks are still soft, take them out of the frying pan and, when the asparagus is cooked, frizzle them in the oil and butter. Serve with the oil and butter poured over. Shave parmesan over the top and serve with chunky bread.
Asparagus auctions are held outside the Fleece at Bretforton (01386 831 173) on May 28 and June 4, starting 6.30pm. The Pershore Plum Festival is on August 28. The Angel Inn and Posting House (01386 552 046) in Pershore offers two-night weekend breaks for £100 for two people, B&B. For other hotels and B&BS, contact the Heart of England Tourism Board (01905 763 463) or the Wychaven District Council tourism office (01386 565 373).