If I could encourage readers of this blog into one simple, routine habit it would be this: to read the label on any item of fresh produce before you decide whether or not to buy it from the supermarket or store.
I can guarantee that if you are not in the habit of doing so, you will be surprised by what you find.
Take asparagus as an example. Those who shop in supermarkets without looking at the country of origin label might well think that asparagus has a long growing season. It does not. British asparagus has a short (but glorious) season of 6-8 weeks only, typically being harvested between around late April and late June.
The rest of the time, supermarkets source their asparagus from Peru and Mexico. From there it has to be transported some six thousand miles to reach our shopping basket.
Living standards and labour costs in Peru and Mexico are much lower than over here, meaning that asparagus imported from these countries can turn out to be cheaper than British asparagus, even though the latter may have been grown just a few miles from the store.
Peruvian asparagus was unheard of 20 years ago. Now it is grown extensively in the Ica Valley, which used to be a naturally dry, desert region. To irrigate the vast acreage of asparagus crops now grown there requires water diverted to the region from elsewhere. This has led to a huge fall in the water table and means that for many Peruvians access to fresh water is now rationed.
In Peru a few individuals and companies have become extremely rich on the back of the asparagus industry. But they have done so at the expense of the environment and their workers, 70% of whom are women on poverty wages.
All of this, ultimately, is to satisfy our demand for a year-round supply of asparagus.
Asparagus epitomises all that is wrong with an economic system that does not take account of the environmental costs of food production and that relies on keeping consumers poorly informed about the true provenance of the food they consume.
So do, please, make a habit of checking the labels when you next shop in your supermarket or store.
Enjoy British asparagus right now when it is at its very best – fresh, seasonal, organic and locally grown – and reject asparagus (and other vegetables) that come to this country out of season with a hidden but very high environmental and human cost.
For those of you, like me, who refuse to buy asparagus imported from Peru and Mexico during the rest of the year now is the time to enjoy these precious few weeks of delayed gratification. Fresh, locally grown asparagus can’t be beaten.
I have created this recipe in association with Suma Wholefoods Cooperative. Under the terms of our arrangement, every couple of months I select products from the Suma Wholefoods range which Suma provide free of charge. From these I create an original recipe which then appears on the Suma website as well here, on the Circus Gardener’s Kitchen.
Asparagus is the main star of this week’s recipe, alongside broad beans and herbs. Together I have used them to produce a flavour-packed, vibrant tart, full of the taste of Spring. The delicate, melt-in-the mouth pastry incorporates broad bean (fava bean) flour to add extra flavour. If you can’t source fava bean flour just use replace it with 80g of plain organic flour.
This tart is lovely served alongside a fresh rocket or watercress salad.
asparagus, broad bean and Spring herb tart
for the pastry
for the filling
12 spears of fresh, organic asparagus
50 g broad beans, podded weight
250 ml organic double cream
4 organic free range eggs
½ tsp sea salt
80 g vegetarian mature Cheddar, grated
2 tbsp mixed fresh herbs (I used mint, chives, oregano, chives, basil and parsley), finely chopped
1. First, make the pastry. Put the plain flour, fava bean flour, salt and butter in the bowl of a food processor and mix at the lowest setting until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg and the water. The mixture should form into a pliable ball. If necessary add a very small amount more water, but only a little at a time. Remove from the food processor bowl, flatten the ball slightly to a thick disc shape (this makes it easier to roll out later), wrap in clingfilm and put it the fridge for 30 minutes.
2. In the meantime, bring a pan of water to the boil, add the broad beans and return to the boil for two minutes. Immediately remove from the heat, drain the broad beans and plunge into a bowl of ice cold water. Slip the emerald broad beans out of their skins and set to one side.
3. Steam the asparagus stems for 2 minutes then refresh in iced water and drain thoroughly on kitchen paper. Set to one side.
4. Pre heat the oven to 175˚C (350˚F, gas mark 4). Grease a flan dish. Retrieve the pastry, roll out thinly and carefully place it into the flan dish. Trim the pastry so that there is a slight overhang of about 1 cm. (Any unused pastry can be frozen for use in the future). Prick the base and sides of the flan pastry base with a fork and line it with parchment and baking stones or beans. Bake blind in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, leave to cool slightly and then remove the parchment and baking beans. The edges of the flan will have shrunk slightly, but now you can trim them neatly to the height of the flan dish with a sharp knife.
5. Whisk the eggs with the double cream and sea salt until smooth.
6. Pour half of the egg and cream mix into the pastry shell. On top of this evenly sprinkle half of the Cheddar cheese. Next, evenly distribute three quarters of the chopped herbs.
7. Pour most of the remaining egg and cream mixture on top, followed by most of the remaining Cheddar cheese. Next, carefully arrange the asparagus across the tart. Scatter the broad beans around the asparagus, followed by the remaining herbs. Finally, top with the remaining egg and cream mixture and any remaining cheese.
8. Place in the pre-heated oven for 35-40 minutes until set and golden. Leave to cool slightly. Serve while still warm with a simple green salad.