George Blogg shows how to make the most of the short season with a masterclass using asparagus grown in Gravetye Manor's vegetable garden in Sussex. Michael Raffael reports
Gravetye Manor in East Grinstead, Sussex, has been an iconic founder member of the grand country hotel club for over 50 years. But it has a greater claim to fame - it was once home to William Robinson, who championed gardening at the turn of the 20th century. He was as passionate about growing fruit and vegetables as he was about garden design, and he built one of the last and largest walled gardens in the country.
The garden is still immaculate and now supplies the hotel with the pick of the produce, not least its asparagus. The eight beds, some over 10 years old, yield enough white and green asparagus to see the kitchens through May and into June.
Its quality has given chef George Blogg insights into how to handle asparagus to its best advantage. Eaten raw in salads, it adds sweetness and crispness that would disappear after a day or two in the cold rooms of many kitchens. He can match the perfect white spears with wild turbot, cockles and sea herbs. The starter of green asparagus with variations of ewes' milk and mint) looks the essence of simplicity, but the dish highlights every aspect of the asparagus: its unique texture, taste and appearance.
Freshness and storage
Once harvested, asparagus starts losing its flavour (its sweetness especially) faster than most other vegetables. Dedicated growers aim to ship them to restaurants they supply within 24 hours of harvesting. They may also chill them to 2Â°C.
During the season - from the end of April to mid-June - Gravetye aims to be self-sufficient, relying on its eight beds. Gardeners pick and deliver the asparagus, both white and green, to the kitchens in the morning. The chefs process them and by lunch they are on diners' tables. The next day, the same rotation takes place.
Buying 'straight' spears has no relation to eating quality.
Asparagus features in half a dozen dishes: the green spears as a starter; the white as the central accompaniment to a main course; as raw shavings in a composed salad; or as a canapé or amuse-bouche. Chefs also use the trimmings for vegetable stocks or soups, so nothing is wasted.
Except in recipes where it is used raw, the asparagus is trimmed, cooked and blanched ahead of service. Blogg expects to prepare around 100 green spears and 50 white spears per batch.
Gravetye Manor's kitchen is in a unique position as it doesn't pay for produce from the kitchen garden. Throughout the year, Blogg and head gardener Tom Coward give an estimate of the value of the goods the kitchen receives, which results in adjustments to future budgeting in the gardening and food costs.
When analysing a dish, a chef looks at three main factors: ingredient cost, preparation time and popularity. "A good set-price menu will need to contain dishes that represent a balanced variation of these factors to accommodate both time and cost constraints. The asparagus dish," Blogg said, "costs relatively little, especially as it is our own produce, but it involves a lot of preparation. And it is very popular, exaggerating its influence on the constraints we have to work with, so it would be difficult to include on a menu if the ingredient costs were also relatively high."
Preparation and cooking
Freshness is key. The techniques for prepping green and white are a little different. The length of the spears used in a recipe varies according to the dish. Note that for this master- class Blogg used a few spears, but for daily mise en place he would cook larger batches.
The spears don't all have the same thickness, so to decide how much is tender, hold both ends and snap - the point where the stem snaps is where the stringy part starts. From tip to break is often about 20cm (1).
The tips will be tightly closed. Use a paring knife to nip off the scales just below the tip for presentation purposes (2).
In classical cuisine, chefs made a shallow cut around the stem about 10cm below the tip and another lower down. They then pare away the outer casing. This is quite unnecessary and works against flavour.
Peeling the stems below the tips works so long as the peeling doesn't cut down into the white core. A sharp, thin peeler is needed to leave the stalk with as much of the nutrient-rich green colour on as possible. Trim the end at right angles to the stem (3).
Boiling asparagus is a bit like boiling pasta: the less time it's in the water, the more taste it will retain. Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil and season with 15g-20g of salt per litre. Prepare a bowl of water containing ice cubes. Drop the asparagus into the pan and boil for about three minutes (4). When ready, it's still crisp but has lost its raw taste. Refresh the asparagus in the ice water, remove as soon as it is cold, and place on a cloth-lined tray in a neat stack. Keep in the fridge until needed.
White asparagus doesn't need trimming or paring. The calibre can vary from the thickness of a little finger to a couple of centimetres in diameter.
Test where the stem starts to become stringy and then peel in the same way as for green asparagus. Square off the end where it breaks - about 15cm for smaller spears. Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil and season with 15g-20g of salt per litre. Drop the asparagus in and boil until tender. Time varies with size, but it will take about eight minutes. The spears are ready when a knife tip goes in without resistance. Drain, but don't refresh under iced water - this time let the spears cool naturally.
Blanched green asparagus, ewes' milk curd
- 25g ewes' milk curd
- 2x12cm approx pÁ¢te Á brick tubes
- 3 prepped green asparagus
- 20ml approx mint gremolata
- 20g approx minted yogurt
- 1tsp approx mint jelly pearls
- 1tbs approx citrus gel
- 4 ewes' milk foam crisps
Some ingredients are given as a rough guide because the kitchen plates individually and the variation in asparagus size will influence the proportions.
Using a fine-nozzled plain tube, pipe the curd into the tubes - first one end and then the other (5). Coat the asparagus in gremolata, then spread the minted yogurt in the centre of the plate (6). Arrange the asparagus with ewes' curd tubes between the spears.
Dip the mint jelly pearls in gremolata as a seasoning. Spoon them over the asparagus (7). Pipe small dots of citrus gel around and on top of the asparagus (8), then lay the milk-foam crisps on top.
Chefs with access to very fresh, carefully sourced asparagus shouldn't throw out the trimmings. Add them to a vegetable nage. Still-tender ends that have been cut off for aesthetic reasons can be used for soups, veloutés or espuma foams.
The traditional way of cooking vertical bunches in a special pan is outmoded, unnecessary and impractical. It was developed as a technique when cooks boiled asparagus for much longer than they do nowadays.
The rest of the dish
Set 200ml of citrus juice (a mixture of yuzu, lime, lemon and grapefruit) with 50g of sugar and 4g of agar agar. Blend to a gel and pass.
Add a little salt to whole milk. Heat and make into a stiff, cappuccino-textured foam. Spoon a teaspoon at a time onto a dehydrator sheet, leaving room between blobs to expand. Dry until crisp, for about two hours.
Combine a handful each of chopped mint and parsley, one microplaned garlic clove and the grated zest of a lemon with 200ml of virgin rapeseed oil. Leave for 24 hours to infuse.
Blanch a handful of mint leaves and blend them with 150ml ewes' milk yogurt, flavoured with a hint of sugar.
Mint jelly pearls
Makes 8-10 portions
This is a variation on the spherification technique. Boil 100g sugar with 100ml cider vinegar. Add a splash of water to make up for the moisture that will evaporate. Infuse a handful of mint leaves for two minutes. Strain the gastrique and add 2g of agar agar. Fill a squeezy bottle with the mixture. Prepare a bowl of neutral oil to below 0Â°C. Squeeze a continuous stream from the bottle in a circular motion into the oil. As the liquid sinks to the base of the bowl, it separates into ball-bearing sized pearls. Drain, but keep the oil for re-use.
White versus green
William Robinson, the gardening genius who owned Gravetye Manor from 1884 until his death in the 1930s, co-authored a book on asparagus growing. He had found on a study trip that the French grew white asparagus "as thick as eels" at Argenteuil near Paris, whereas the London market was importing Continental asparagus to meet the demand.
Meanwhile, his contemporary, Auguste Escoffier - chef at the Savoy - was encouraging the ProvenÁ§al farmer to grow green asparagus for the English market. He also wrote in his memoirs that he never received any financial reward for his 'consultancy'.
The trend for the Continent to prefer white and Britain to eat green has persisted, except that since the advent of Nouvelle Cuisine in the 1970s, green has supplanted white in restaurant kitchens across the Channel and Brits have started using more white.
Golden Cross ewes' milk curd
Gravetye Manor buys its raw ewes' milk curd and yogurt from Golden Cross Cheese, which won a super gold award at the 2014-2015 World Cheese Awards.
The Michelin star George Blogg received within two years of joining Gravetye Manor as its chef seems almost incidental. As a protégé of Philip Howard and David Everitt-Matthias, he settled into his role with effortless ease. The reason, perhaps, is because the hotel itself is undergoing a transformation.
At the heart of its revival are the gardens and, for Blogg, the kitchen garden and wild gardens. They supply him with plants with genuine flavour as well as fresh produce through the year, whether it's micro herbs from the glasshouses, fresh peaches, or vegetables chosen to meet his needs.
It's a happy marriage, he insists, and endlessly fulfilling for him, but not without its difficulties. Yes, he has access to perfect fruit and veg, but not always with consistent supply. He can't dictate to a wholesaler like most chefs. Instead, he has to adapt to what is grown and when it comes into season. His cooking is a genuine reflection of his workplace. The gardens are growing for him, but he is also showing off the gardeners' skills on his plates.
Watch George Blogg prepare spring garden salad at Gravetye Manor
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