There’s nothing I can think of right this minute more satisfying than the snap of fresh asparagus as it’s being prepared for a quick steambath. There are a few reasons asparagus is such a treat: obviously taste is top of the list, while the novel effect it can have on particular secretions would probably be bottom of the list (if you’re in the dark on this one, just try eating a load and pay attention to what happens over the following few hours). But like the strawberries of my youth, part of aspargus’s allure is that its relatively short natural season means the arrival of a local bounty signals that summer is finally here.
Now, it’s true that if I was to claim summer is finally here right now, I could reasonably be accused of getting well ahead of myself. Two sunny weekends does not a season make and all that. And it’s also true that the nearest we Irish usually get to a local bounty is when the British season kicks in (May–June). But this sunny Sunday just gone, I found myself celebrating mother’s day down in Brooklodge in Co Wicklow, where the first of their monthly Sunday markets was in full force. It’s a small gathering of stalls, but rather perfectly formed (and runs the first Sunday of each month from now till October).
We meandered through, picking up pancetta, gnocchetti sardi (teensy dried pasta shells) and artichoke paste from the Teach Hilda stall (all of which is organic, in line with the Brooklodge operation itself), and a mixed half dozen of duck and hen’s eggs from Jenny Young of Castlefarm, and a fiesty sweet chilli dipping sauce from Ciara’s Pantry along the way. We resisted getting weighed down with jars of Macreddin Village’s signature wild garlic pesto, not to mention some great looking potted cultivated herbs. We sampled some very tasty quiches but went instead for a hunk of suckling pig reared for the hotel at the nearby Gold River Organic Farm and carved straight off the spit roast and into a freshly baked bap with organic leaves, slathered with garlic mayo and pear chutney. Then we grabbed ourselves two glasses of organic prosecco and a table in the sunshine beside the live jazz duo, and sat back for the late afternoon.
We did not leave however without also picking up a bunch of asparagus each, imported from France by Denis Healy. Just as we were debating whether they would survive a night out of the fridge (we were staying over in one of the hotel’s cosy twin rooms, so they would have to too) Jenny Young wandered by. “For €3, take the chance” was her counsel, and the two bunches of French asparagus were sold. They may not be as fat as the best of British, nor as full-flavoured, but at €3 for a bunch of 25 snappy spears, we weren’t complaining!
It turns out we all survived the night at Brooklodge – and pretty well too! Myself and the ma joined several other mammies agus Inghinidhe na hÉireann for a proper slap-up dinner in the fully certified organic restaurant, The Strawberry Tree. Highlights included pan-fried wild monkfish served with a lobster bisque sauce and fresh asparagus, so I guess the chef may have taken a stroll in the market that avo too! (Also brilliant were the thick-cut slices of Macreddin home-smoked salmon served with a salad of orange segments and cucumber spaghetti, with a prickly-flavoured wild nettle cappucino soup; and our other starter of wild crab meat moistened with a lemongrass foam and built into a ‘pie’ with discs of waxy saffron-hued potatoes, topped with an inspired salad of fennel shavings and wild sorrel leaves.)
Anyway, this morning me and the ma tore ourselves away from the place, bunches of asparagus clutched in hand, and faced the grey Monday morning and the straight road back to Dublin.
But this evening, I re-lived the dream, pulling a third of those spears from the big generous bunch, and snapping the woodier ends off. Then I boiled up some of those cute gnocchetti sardi pasta shells, and steamed the spears in a bamboo steamer atop, holding back the delicate tips till towards the end of the cooking. And I mixed up some of that artichoke paste with some of the starchy pasta water and a little olive oil infused with grated new season garlic. In with some Moonshine Dairy organic cheese and a good twist of pepper, and supper was up.
It might not be high summer supper – yet – but it sure as hell made me hungry for some more sunshine!