Nick goes in search of asparagus in and around Norwich, Norfolk, in eastern England. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
I have known Vernon Mascarenhas for 30 years, initially when he was a restaurateur. Since then, he has been a vegetable supplier to many of the country’s top restaurants. As such he has been a useful source for which vegetables are in season with the odd bit of restaurant gossip attached.
That is why one day in mid May I found myself standing next to Mascarenhas in the Dolphin field (named after a pub of the same name long since gone which once stood in the corner of it) that belongs to Will Jolly (pictured below) and his family, 20 miles outside Norwich.
The sun was warm and the field was full of asparagus that was almost visibly shooting up. Asparagus can grow up to 6 inches per day in full sunlight. And this is prime asparagus season, a season that began on Easter Sunday this year and will run its normal six-week cycle until 16 June, when the last will be picked. Mascarenhas will have it in stock for an extra three to four days, after which time English asparagus will disappear from menus up and down the land until spring 2020.
A good 99.9% of the asparagus grown in the UK is green, in contrast to that grown in the rest of Europe that is almost as predominantly white. But as we stood there, we came to realise how reliant the English are on the rest of Europe for what we consider a very English ingredient.
The battery-operated buggies that were scouring the field for the individual stalks of asparagus of the right height to be cut that day are produced in Germany, Italy or Holland, while the men who sat over them cutting those of the requisite length and placing them carefully into plastic boxes were Bulgarian. They were part of Jolly’s team of 14, all from Bulgaria, whom I was to see later washing, grading and packing the asparagus.
The asparagus is graded into three different sizes, ‘select’, large and extra large with most chefs choosing the select size to use in their first courses while a single spear of the large is considered sufficient to accompany a main course. Chefs also want a guaranteed price for the season, something that Mascarenhas supplies after negotiations with Jolly at the beginning of the picking season.
Jolly is a medium-sized asparagus producer whose 60 acres (24 ha) devoted to this vegetable produce about 60 tons of the suitably named Jolly Asparagus. As I thanked him and we shook hands, he left me with his favourite asparagus recipe. 'Grill them in olive oil, wrap them in ham and enjoy them with what I call "dippy eggs" but most people refer to as soft-boiled eggs’.
I was to encounter a menu that specifically listed Jolly Asparagus an hour later in the excellent Benedicts restaurant in Norwich.
The black and white timbered building that houses Benedicts could not be more suitable for a city that exudes history at every corner. With the kitchen in the basement and the private dining room on the first floor pictured below, there is no need for any member of staff to want, or even need, to go to the gym.
This is especially true as chef/proprietor Richard Bainbridge aims to get the most out of not just his kitchen staff but also his waiting staff. First up was a savoury sablé biscuit topped with crème fraiche and fennel; then came a savoury cone and two large prawn crackers topped with salmon eggs, served with a bowl of sherry sabayon. The waiter explained that this had been the chef’s grandmother’s favourite concoction and this was a way of continuing the practice of having a drink with her. The sabayon was certainly delicious but slightly difficult to enjoy with the crisp crackers so I mopped up the lot with a couple of pieces of baker Ollie’s equally exciting sourdough.
It was then time to enjoy my first course of Jolly’s asparagus with a wild garlic sauce and topped with a grated Granny Smith apple. The asparagus had been carefully trimmed before being grilled and then tied up with a piece of green string. Jolly had told me that he is moving towards abandoning rubber bands wherever possible as invariably taking the bands off damages the head of at least one spear. The two sauces with it were excellent.
The rest of the meal was more mixed. My main course of plaice, listed as on the bone on the menu, was slightly overcooked whereas Mascarenhas’s from that day’s set menu of an amalgam of pork belly was, he described, ‘delicious’. I had the better dessert, a glistening tranche of a dish described as sherry trifle stuffed through with raspberries. With a glass of Uruguayan house red and a single coffee, my bill for lunch for two came to £69, excluding highly attentive service.
Since the Bainbridges took it over in 2015, Benedicts has become an integral part of this city. Just as English asparagus has become an integral ingredient on the menus of any seasonally minded chef today. It will be like that for another two weeks and I urge you to take full advantage of this seasonal but all too temporary treat.
Benedicts 9 St Benedicts Street, Norwich NR2 4PE; tel +44 (0)1603 926080