They used to call the Wirral ‘God’s golden Acre’. This low lying peninsula of land, warmed by the gulf stream, and washed by two rivers, enjoys a micro-climate to rival the best in Britain. Hardly surprising, then, that it’s also producing some of the UK’s most in-demand ingredients.
But there’s a turf war afoot – as Wirral battles it out against Formby to be king of all things asparagus.
We’re now deep into the short-lived asparagus season (traditionally from early May to mid June) and already, restaurants across the city are beginning to introduce the sweet green spears to their summer menus.
Which is the best? Well that’s up to you – although Claremont’s is certainly giving Formby’s a run for its money, with Wirral’s very own MasterChef, Claire Lara reportedly a huge fan, and restaurants from 60 Hope Street to Ziba at the Racquet Club opting for Wirral’s green shoots over that of its well-healed Sefton rivals.
When most of the Wirral peninsula was a royal forest, Henry VIII would come hunting venison here. At the end of a good day’s stalking, he’d indulge in the luxury of Wirral asparagus, as its sandy soil and sea air (then, and now) are perfect growing conditions.
At Claremont, in Bebington, farmer Andrew Pimbley (left) has 20 acres devoted to the crop: “Wirral has the perfect microclimate,” he tells SevenStreets. “Asparagus traditionally grows near the coast and likes the salty air and good drainage. It’s also that little bit warmer here in Wirral, too!”
He’s right. At least, according to those who you’d think would know about this sort of thing, the British Asparagus Team:
“Wirral asparagus is special because the Wirral has slightly higher temperatures than surrounding areas to the north,” says the BAT’s Gail Painter. “But it’s still cooler than down South. This means the asparagus grows slightly more slowly and retains more of its flavour. The Peninsula is almost an island, embraced by the Dee, the Mersey and the Irish Sea, and asparagus loves a salty coastal climate. Plus the Wirral has two sandstone ridges running down the middle, giving the well-drained sandy soil in which asparagus thrives.”
Maybe that’s why the region’s two Michelin star chefs, Northcote’s Nigel Haworth and Fraîche’s Marc Wilkinson both seem to favour the Leisure Peninsula’s variety.
“Whenever possible I use local produce,” Wilkinson says , “and I really look forward to the asparagus season at Claremont Farm here on the Wirral. Their asparagus is simply great.”
Can you tell the difference? Does it matter? Not really – they both taste great to us.
Formby asparagus has a long and curious history. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the low-lying Sefton coast was considered a sandy wasteland, unfit for farming. But, with the arrival of the railway to Southport, Liverpool’s raw sewage (collected at night from cesspools and privies) was brought to Formby, and spread liberally over the town, to fertilise and improve the land. On Liverpool’s crap, Formby’s farmers grew wealthy.
Talking of which, that funny urine smell? It’s all to do with a sulfur-containing compound – methyl mercaptan – which, when broken down in the digestive track, gives off that fruitily peculiar smell; but only in about half of us: those with the specific gene that’s required to break down the compound. We kinda like it (is that wrong?)
All of which might make you think twice before tucking into a glistening spear. But it shouldn’t – it’s a potent anti-inflammatory, is high in folic acid, and is currently being investigated for its role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. And, as long as you’re not buying it from Sainsburys and Tesco (which, on our last visit, were stocking Wye Valley asparagus and, shockingly, asparagus from Peru!) you’ll go to food mile heaven, and enjoy some of our very best local produce. Griddle it for five minutes, drizzle it in butter, sprinkle with sea salt, consume.
Need more greens? Nutty, peppery and packed with goodness, (if you believe everything you read in the Sunday supplements – like us) watercress is nature’s superfood. And the Wirral is producing the best in Britain at Peter Jones’ Wirral Watercress. Jones, pic right, whose Childer Thornton produce was recently praised in the Daily Telegraph, is the only British grower to produce his crop under glass. The result? Daintier leaves, and a more delicate flavour than that rough as hedgerow stuff you get in chlorinated bags at the supermarket.
Grown on gravel beds and nourished with fresh, clean water, the cress is harvested from May to December (the glass gives Jones a month or so either side of the traditional growing season).
“For over 1,000 years, watercress has been used to clean the blood, detox the liver, and fortify the skin and hair,” Jones says, “and in the 18th Century it was wrapped in paper and eaten as one would enjoy an ice-cream cone.”
“But it absolutely has to be fresh,” Jones adds, explaining that, not so long ago, most of Britain’s watercress was flown in from as far afield as Portugal and Florida.
Peter Jones doesn’t forget the small stuff either. He’s big in the microsalad world: baby leaves, such as pea shoots, mustard and sorrel. “They’re packed with all the health benefits needed for the seedling to grow into a healthy plant,” Jones says. Think cress, but posher. Small in stature, big in flavour.