Head chef's guide to asparagus

Bedford Lodge is using asparagus grown just 15 miles away at Cambridge Asparagus

Bedford Lodge's head chef Sean Melville guides you through all things asparagus

After a late start, British asparagus season is now in full swing – and what a fantastic season it is. For a few short weeks of the year, after months of patiently waiting, we are rewarded with those coveted, crisp, green spears.

At Bedford Lodge Hotel & Spa we have been busy steaming, slicing, griddling and blending asparagus, and experimenting with different flavour combinations to create our special Asparagus Week menu, which will be available later this month. As a result, we feel inspired to get talking about the wonders of this humble spring vegetable…

Using fresh, seasonal and local ingredients ensures the highest possible quality of any dish, and is also a great way to get chefs excited about their work. As such, at Bedford Lodge Hotel & Spa we source the majority of our ingredients from within a 50-mile radius of the Hotel, and we regularly organise team visits to our suppliers – when the chefs can see where their ingredients come from it takes their cooking to a new level, and really engages them in their work.

This asparagus season we are sourcing our crops from Cambridge Asparagus, a family-run grower based in Great Abingdon – that means there is just 15 miles between the field and the fork. The team and I recently visited the farm to taste and pick our asparagus; it was inspiring to meet with growers who are truly enthusiastic about their produce, and so interested in how we will prepare it and what we will cook with it. During the visit, the team developed a personal connection with the ingredient – making for a passionate group of chefs and exceptional cooking. 

If you are looking to do some home-cooking this spring, here are my top tips for choosing the best asparagus and making the most of it:

  • Go local: reducing food miles has the biggest impact on the quality of your ingredients, and provides support to the fantastic growers in your community. Fresh, British asparagus can taste worlds apart from your packaged supermarket asparagus – it is crisp and sweet, like a pea – absolutely delicious.
  • Keep it fresh: As soon as asparagus is picked it begins to lose its goodness so be sure to keep an eye on the root end – as it becomes less fresh, the root end starts to shrink and looks dull. To maintain goodness for longer, treat a bunch of asparagus the same way as you would a bunch of flowers, and keep the stems upright in water.
  • Cook it carefully: Boiling is not the only way! When you cook vegetables the nutrients diminish, however there are cooking techniques to ensure your asparagus stays as nutritious as possible. Steaming asparagus is a great way to retain the goodness, and is also quick and easy. Barbequing is another method and offers the added bonus of that delicious charcoal flavour! But, if you must boil the asparagus, place the stem upright in the water with the tip above the surface – the delicate tip of the asparagus takes less time to cook than the thick stem, so it is best to keep the tip above water and let it be gently cooked by the steam instead.
  • Waste not, want not: The bottom end of the asparagus’ stem can be woody and tough, and it is tempting to throw it away but even this unglamorous part of the asparagus can be a wonderful ingredient. Thinly slice the stem and throw it into an omelette mix to add some extra crunch and nutrients, or use the whole asparagus to create a hearty asparagus soup!
  • Get creative: Asparagus is a versatile ingredient and lends itself to many dishes, so get creative and discover some new flavour experiences. Some of my favourite asparagus combinations include:
  1. Classically grilled asparagus with olive oil, lemon juice, rocket and parmesan, topped with a poached egg
  2. Freshly steamed asparagus with hollandaise sauce
  3. Raw, thinly sliced asparagus with fennel, pea shoots and lightly dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
  4. Roasted asparagus with crushed new potatoes, seared baby gem lettuce and crumbled goats cheese
  5. Steamed asparagus and smoked salmon 

British asparagus, smoked salmon and horseradish cigars 

One portion

3 asparagus spears blanched

50g smoked salmon

30ml horseradish cream

3 sheets filo pastry

Knob butter

Seasoning to taste

Wrap the blanched asparagus in the smoked salmon, leaving the tips uncovered.

Brush each sheet of filo pastry with butter. Season with cracked black pepper.

Roll the spears in the filo, again leaving the tips uncovered (so that they resemble a cigar).

Bake in a high oven.