Part of the cultivated lily, the delicate shoots are picked by hand when really young. It has a distinct flavour that has been enjoyed since Greek and Roman times. Grown all over Europe and the Americas, it can be purple-stemmed or pale green though white asparagus, which is more popular in Europe is grown below ground and is picked as soon as it pops through the soil.
How to cook
For best results, briefly boil or steam above a pan of simmering water, or brush with oil and grill on the barbecue. Classically served with Hollandaise sauce, olive oil or melted butter.
British asparagus is around for a short season from the start of May through to July, but it is worth paying the princely sum for it as it's considered to have a superior flavour. It is imported the rest of the year.
Look for thin, fine stems at the start of the season then the spears will get longer and thicker. They still have masses of flavour, but make sure you discard the tough woody end.
Thin stems need a wash and they're ready to use. Larger asparagus needs the woody end snapped off then a quick wash.
Remove from any plastic bag. Place in a glass of water in the fridge door, like celery, or wrap in damp kitchen paper. Keep the tips away from heavier veg as they squash easily.
Serve as a starter cooked simply, as an alternative soldier to dip into boiled egg, or cooked for a filling in a vegetarian quiche or tart. Mix with peas and broad beans as a seasonal pasta sauce, or wrap in pancetta and grill on the barbecue as a simple side dish.