31 May 2002

FEASTING ONTHEHOP…

A Herefordshire farmer now grows one of the most expensive gourmet vegetables in the

world, thanks to declining returns from the traditional hop market. Liz Boynton reports

ITS something that could get foodies fadding and its very expensive and in short supply. It is hop asparagus.

Herefordshire farmer Mark Berry of Munsley, near Ledbury and his farming neighbour Mike Robinson started growing it on 1.2ha (3 acres) of land last year. With only six growers worldwide they are hoping to promote this as an exclusive delicacy.

Mike explains: "Although we were already aware of hop asparagus (these are the young hop shoots), it was only after we had a visit from an American expert in hop growing that we realised we had the right variety of hops suitable for asparagus production."

The first recorded culinary users of hop asparagus were the Romans, although the Egyptians found medicinal uses for the crop. In more recent times Belgium has recognised its gourmet qualities and has put the crop at the top of the culinary market.

Mark says: "Belgium has promoted hop asparagus and made it the delicacy that it is today. Each year they hold an auction, a bit like we have for mistletoe and people come from across Europe to purchase it. It fetches ridiculous amounts of money, and at the height of the season the crop can fetch anything up to £300/kg.

&#42 Short season

"One of the reasons it is so expensive is that the season is short, between two and three weeks in April/May time, and also its a very exacting, labour intensive crop to grow.

"One of the major problems with outdoor growing is frost, which make the shoots woody and tough. Another drawback is that hops are one of the fastest growing plants and grow anything up to 14 inches in any daylight period. Hop asparagus is best picked between six and eight inches high. So you can earmark it the day before but when you go back the following day its too late because its already 18in high."

The hop asparagus production at Munsley is still at an early stage of development and the partners intend to experiment and try growing the crop indoors. "Were trying to combat the frost problem by growing them inside and underground," Mike explains. "Weve converted steel drums. As the spikes come through the soil, well keep covering them until weve got about six inches of covered shoot. This will be white hop asparagus – quite different in looks and taste to the green outdoor grown plant."

The taste of fresh hop asparagus is a cross between spinach and asparagus with a hoppy overtone. The white asparagus has an even lighter, subtler flavour and both can be sautéed in butter and lemon juice for a simple dish.

As the season is so short, the partners realised that they needed to preserve the hop asparagus to let customers have the opportunity of using the product all year round.

"Preserving has also allowed us to bring the costs down so that an 8oz jar of hop asparagus in vinegar will retail at £14.95. It gives people the chance to try it," Mark says. "In the future we are looking to preserve the hops in olive oil so that the flavour will be nearer to the fresh product – we are continually looking to expand our appeal."