The finest asparagus I have ever enjoyed was served in the garden of a winemaker called Christian Tschida. His house, in the small town of Illmitz on the Austrian-Hungarian border, is as picturesque as any I’ve seen. An art-filled series of rooms open up into a beautiful central courtyard, cool spaces filled with barrels of fine natural wines to the rear, views of Neusiedler See-Seewinkel National Park behind them.
The Tschida family are famous winemakers in Austria, with vineyards on the eastern shores of Neusiedler See. More recently, Christian invested in more land close to Purbach, on the opposite side of the lake in the Leitha mountain range.
Tschida is famous for his wines and is one of Europe’s pioneers of the natural wine movement. Visit any chic and fashionable new-age wine bar or restaurant in Paris, Rome, Berlin or London and you will be likely to see his name.
When he served asparagus, I was with the Austrian baker Joseph Brot, the German restaurant man Florian Siepert, and a handful of others, and we were in the Austrian sunshine eating sourdough bread and drinking Felsen 2015 – far, far too good for me – and Christian’s “non-tradition” red, which matched superbly with veal.
Both the veal and the asparagus were cooked on the barbecue, the meat unfathomably juicy, the asparagus charred to be al dente and drizzled lovingly in rich olive oil. This is heavenly stuff, a little La Grand Bouffe, and if it sounds pretentious I do not care. Such moments for me come with upsetting rarity and I really do love asparagus.
Back in England, and we are entering the season. On St George’s Day, April 23, a man called Colin Jelfs will open the Asparagus Auction at the Fleece Inn in the prized Evesham valley in Worcestershire. Many believe the area to be the home of the country’s best tender stems. There, they call asparagus “gras”, with typical English eccentricity.
At the auction, locals – and tourists – will bid on this year’s largest, freshest and greenest asparagus. The produce is donated by growers and farmers in the valley. Afterwards the Asparagus Festival commences in celebration of the harvest. There is morris dancing, music; people dress up like spears and colour themselves green. Jamie Oliver went once, many years ago. It is more Wicker Man than La Grand Bouffe, but to my knowledge, nobody dies or shags in a field. But really, who knows?
Anyway, I adore asparagus, earthy and nutty as it is. I will hopefully feature more than one recipe centred on the vegetable this year. For now, here’s one from Shaun Moffat, executive chef at the Edinburgh Castle in Manchester. He serves his spears with a simple gribiche, the pickled cucumber and dash of vinegar delicious next to the asparagus’ woodiness.
Asparagus with sauce gribiche
Asparagus – amount up to you, but at least four spears per person
2 hard-boiled eggs peeled
100ml cold pressed rapeseed oil, plus a splash of water
1 diced shallot
25g diced pickled cucumber
25g finely chopped wild garlic
25ml cider vinegar
Clean the stems from your asparagus and set up your steamer.
Place one egg in a food processor with the vinegar.
On a high speed, emulsify the oil through the mixture (this could take a splash of water if too thick).
Once happy with the texture of your mayonnaise, chop the other egg and fold through with the rest of your ingredients. Check your seasoning.
At this point, steam your asparagus for a couple of minutes until al dente.
Plate and liberally season with a good, flaky sea salt.
Now spoon on the sauce gribiche.
Finish with a flourish of cold-pressed rapeseed oil.