It’s that time of the year again! We have arrived at the moment when asparagus is beginning to poke its spears through the earth and declare the beginning of summer and a period of plenty. Officially the asparagus season begins on St George’s Day and continues until Midsummer Day. It grows slowly at first but as the weather warms up and sunny days dominate, it grows so quickly you can almost see it moving through the earth.

I always get excited when Charles Gee, from Medley Manor Farm, makes that call to let me know that he has picked the first few bunches of asparagus. This year I have been counting the days, for although I have managed keep my pledge and eat only British food during 2009, now I can go one further and eat local produce so fresh that it is brimming with nutrients and flavour.

While asparagus is now available most of the year, if you are prepared to buy imported spears which have usually travelled halfway round the world to arrive on the supermarket shelf, nothing (and I do mean nothing) tastes as good as asparagus eaten within hours of being picked. This is a vegetable that really does begin to lose its exquisite flavour, when more than 48 hours old, as the sugars in the plant start to turn to starch as soon as it’s picked.

My only regret this year is that to keep faith with my pledge I will not be able to garnish my dish of freshly cooked asparagus with thin shreds of Parmesan cheese. No matter. I have stocked up with butter produced from Jersey cream by the Upper Norton Jersey Cream Company, in Church Hanborough, which is always available at Cornucopia, my local deli in Eynsham.

During the first week or so that asparagus is in season I consider it a glorious treat that needs little adornment. Only when its season is in full swing do I begin thinking of fancy recipes and add it to virtually everything I cook.

For cookery demonstrations that make much of asparagus you can visit Wykham Park Farm, Banbury, between May 22 and May 25, when the farm will be hosting an asparagus event. The farm has invited Sonya Kidney, the renowned chef and former owner of the Marsh Goose, at Moreton-in-Marsh, to show us how to get the most out of fresh asparagus. Visitors will also be given a chance to visit the farm’s asparagus field, watch the crop being harvested and see the grading and packing line.

Wykham Park Farm is a traditional mixed family farm which also farms Aberdeen Angus and Longhorn beef herds, Gloucester Old Spot pigs and assorted vegetables. For further information about their asparagus event call 01295 262235.

The Vale of Evesham also holds an asparagus festival. Actually, there are interesting asparagus-related events in the Vale going on throughout the asparagus season. The festivities include an asparagus auction at The Fleece Inn, Bretforton, at 7pm on Sunday, May 24. The main festival family day takes place on Bank Holiday Monday (May 25) at Bretforton. The festival will include an asparagus farmers’ market, rural and handicraft fayre, displays and cooking demonstrations and asparagus tastings.

The asparagus growers of the Vale of Evesham are also planning several guided asparagus tours on a Dudley coach, which take place on May 13, 20 and 27, and June 3. These tours offer a chance to see and taste purple asparagus, visit asparagus fields and the plant centre at Pershore College, where they can buy asparagus crowns at a discounted price. For further information about the tours call 01386 792206.

One of the fascinating things about asparagus is that it has been used as both a vegetable and as medicine from very early times. The Romans ate it fresh in season and dried it too. There is an asparagus recipe in the oldest surviving book of recipes written in the third century AD by the Roman gourmet Apicius, who lavished countless sums of money on his stomach. So great was Apicius’s love of food that he eventually poisoned himself for fear of dying of hunger.

I am not sure I want to try his recipe, however, as it calls for fresh asparagus to be ground in a mortar, then steeped in wine and cooked along with pepper, celery seed or lovage, coriander, savory, onion, stock and olive oil, then thickened with a beaten egg yolk.

Asparagus lost its popularity in the Middle Ages, not returning to favour until the 17th century. Strangely, by the late 17th century, asparagus was sold during the first week in February as it was grown under glass bells in hot beds which were heated by a liberal use of dung. Forcing early asparagus spears continued until the 20th century and then the growers allowed it to revert to its natural season.

There are some farmers in the UK using polythene cloches to bring on the early varieties and growing some plants on cool north-facing fields to take the season beyond Midsummer Day. But most farmers just let it poke through the soil when it is ready.

Farmers on the Continent produce a white asparagus. They do this by banking up the soil as the spears appear so that only their tips turn a pale violet. Personally, I prefer the green asparagus we grow so well in Oxfordshire, as white asparagus has a mildly bitter taste.

You will find fresh Oxfordshire asparagus being sold in most farmers’ markets during the next few weeks and on sale at several pick-your-owns, including Rectory Farm at Stanton St John, Q Gardens, Milton Hill, and Medley Manor Farm, Binsey.

Don’t ignore it!