At the time of writing, March seems to be going out like a more ferocious lion than the one that roared in. While Morris men root out their thermals for St George's Day and the home-grown asparagus season, I'm bracing myself too for another round of wine-matching queries.
The fact is that Britain's most reliable green shoots can be tricky in a peculiarly smelly, leguminous way that gives many wines an unpleasant metallic tang. A classic dressing of eggy, vinegary hollandaise sauce merely beefs up the lynch-mob awaiting the wine in the glass. As for cheffy attacks of anchovies, pancetta, chilli and parmesan, don't bother to bring me my spear, for it will be blunt.
Because it is such a fleeting thing, there seems little point in doing anything to asparagus beyond briefly steaming it out of its raw state and adding no more than butter and seasoning. Many recommend sauvignon blanc as long as it isn't too trenchant, passion-fruity or spicy but for me, the perfect partner is bone-dry muscat, preferably from Alsace (Trimbach's Reserve is perfect) or the Languedoc, heartland of heady and sweet muscats which are now increasingly seen fermented to a stylish dryness (the new vintage of Domaine de Barroubio will be with us any minute). The perfume remains, and seems to absorb any green aggression from the spears and I find this also to be true of Romania's tamâioasa, (pron támmy-wássa) with its grapey freshness and the hint of background sweetness in the middle palate though the finish is dry and crisp.
That said, there does come a time in the season when asparagus overload triggers the temptation to get a bit creative. Exotic ingredients come out and caution is thrown to the winds, often with very pleasing results. The recipes below are the most frequent flyers chez moi, all the more so as they introduce the possibility of other wine styles. They also inject class, out of season, into inferior imported asparagus, chilled to within an inch of its life and with a massive carbon spoor that renders it even less digestible.
The first is a perfect symphony of seasonal ingredients, all available now. Fresh morels are not that easy to come by but I find the taste gap between the fresh and dried varieties of this particular wild mushroom to be much narrower than is the case with, say, porcini. If you haven't had a massive fresh porcino, thickly sliced and slowly fried, or grilled like a fillet steak, you haven't lived in my view. Dried morels are pricy, but less so than fresh, and packed with intense flavour so feel free to substitute. The dish does involve hollandaise, despite everything I've said, but it will be a lot more biddable if paired with a buttery chardonnay - a Pouilly-Fuissé would be a stylish bet.
The second, which involves roasting the spears and serving them with salty accoutrements makes completely different demands on the wine. Here you need a bit of sweetness and a fruity, strawberryish rosé.
Asparagus, Morels and Jersey Royals with Hollandaise Sauce
Serves 4 as an elegant vegetarian main course, 6 as a starter
- 1kg asparagus, trimmed
- 250g fresh or 50g dried morel mushrooms
- 200g Jersey Royal potatoes
- 1 lemon halved
- 30g butter
- 2 egg yolks
- 250g butter, chilled and cubed
- Salt and freshly-ground pepper (white or black, to taste)
Clean the fresh morels with a stiff brush or sponge gently with a damp cloth. Do not immerse in water. Cut any large ones in half. For dried morels, rehydrate in boiling water for at least 20 minutes, and drain well through a sieve lined with kitchen paper, reserving the water for your stock-pot.
A double-boiler, with a saucepan on the bottom and steaming basket on top is useful for the next step. Fill the bottom with water, bring to the boil and add the potatoes. When they begin to yield, put the asparagus in the steaming basket on top and give it no longer than 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Similarly, drain the potatoes which should be just tender.
Melt the butter in a frying pan and toss the mushrooms in it. Add the juice of one of the lemon halves and fry gently until all moisture has evaporated. Add the potatoes and asparagus to the pan, season well and leave to warm through on a very low heat.
Make the hollandaise. Whisk the eggs yolks with a dessertspoon of cold water in a heatproof bowl and place it in a saucepan a third-filled with simmering water. Add the butter, cube by cube, whisking continuously. Halfway through, add the juice of the remaining half-lemon and season well. As soon as all the butter is in, and the sauce looks thick and mayonnaise-like, take the bowl off the heat.
Arrange the asparagus, morels and potatoes on four plates. Drizzle over a ribbon of hollandaise and serve the rest in a sauce-boat.
Serves 4-6 as a starter, depending on greed
- 24 asparagus spears, trimmed
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 4-6 rashers of pancetta
- Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
- Shaved parmesan cheese, to garnish
Blanch the asparagus in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and refresh under a cold tap. When the spears have cooled, toss them in olive oil and season with the pepper. Go easy on the salt at this stage to take account of the ham. Gather into bundles of 4 or 6 spears and wrap each bundle with a pancetta rasher. Secure with a cocktail stick and arrange the bundles on a foil-lined baking sheet. You can do this bit in advance.
When ready to roll, preheat the oven to 220ºC/Gas 8. Roast the asparagus bundles for about 10 minutes, or until the ham is crisp and brown. The spears should be tender. Scatter with a little whole salt and garnish with shards of parmesan.
Janet Wynne Evans