The picturesque village of Bretforton, in Worcestershire, England, has a unique claim to fame. Over 240 acres of land surrounding the village used to be dedicated to asparagus, and today, it is the heart of the yearly Vale of Evesham asparagus celebrations.
Every year in May, the village hosts the British Asparagus Festival with Morris dancing, asparagus songs, demonstrations of traditional asparagus-tying, and guest appearances from Gus the Asparagus Man and Eve, the Asparagus Fairy. Anyone wanting to know what the future holds seeks out Jemima Packington, the world’s only “Asparamancer.” Packington makes her predictions by throwing asparagus spears into the air and interpreting how they fall.
Known locally as “Vale gras” or simply “gras,” Vale of Evesham asparagus is unique. It was even the last British product awarded “Protected” status by the EU, prior to Brexit. So what makes it different than any other asparagus?
The answer lies in the terroir. Unlike the sandy soils found in other asparagus regions, Vale asparagus is grown in heavy clay. In addition, the Vale of Evesham has a warm, dry microclimate. These factors combined result in a slightly sweet asparagus that’s succulent and tender, despite its thicker stem.
It was its uniqueness that led to Vale asparagus gaining protected status, says Darren Hedges from Revills Farm Shop. “All asparagus grown in the Vale of Evesham naturally outdoors now comes under Protected Geographical Indication, because of our microclimate,” he explains. “Any asparagus grown under glass or cover does not have this status.”
Asparagus was first introduced into the UK in the 17th century. In 1667, diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about buying a “hundred of sparrow-grass” at Fenchurch Street in London. By 1768, it was being grown in Evesham and sent for sale in Bath and Bristol.
With the arrival of the train network, Vale of Evesham asparagus was soon transported to London and elsewhere. Although the Second World War led to a decline in the acreage devoted to asparagus, Vale gras is now sought-after once more, especially by top restaurants and hotels.
Asparagus is a crop that requires time and patience. It takes four years to grow to maturity before it’s ready for cutting, and the spears can only be cut for a short season, traditionally between April 23 (St. George’s Day) and June 21 (Midsummer’s Day). After that, it has to be left to grow and gain strength for the next year’s crop. Each asparagus plant can remain viable for 20 years or more.
Diana Raphael, daughter of a local grower, recalls how hard life could be for asparagus farmers. “My father lived on the farm before me. He was a nurseryman and grew asparagus as a specialty,” she says. “When we were little, we had to get up at 4 a.m. to help with the asparagus harvest. He would cut the asparagus, my mother would tie it up in bundles, and at 8:15 we had to be ready to take it to market in the wheelbarrow on our way to school.”
Gras remains a way of life in the Vale of Evesham. St. Leonard’s Church in Bretforton has an asparagus stained-glass window, and the local Round of Gras pub pays tribute with both its name and a seasonal asparagus menu. The term “a round of gras” is also unique to the area. A round of asparagus contains 15 spears, and can be combined into a larger bundle known as “a hundred,” consisting of 120 spears.
Vale of Evesham residents and growers are proud of their asparagus, and take every opportunity to promote it. In 2018, people gathered at the Fleece Inn for a chance to ride a heritage steam train renamed the Asparagus Express for the day, and in 2012, a round of Vale asparagus was a special guest at Shakespeare’s birthday celebration in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Sometimes, these efforts backfire. About a decade ago, the six-foot tall, green-faced, and green-bearded Gus the Asparagus Man wasn’t allowed into a UK Parliament reception honoring regional produce. His costume was deemed a security risk. But more recently, Gus and a delegation from Evesham travelled to Brussels in 2017 to thank the European Parliament for granting Vale gras PGI status. There, Gus the Asparagus Man read “An Ode to Asparagus” to members of Parliament:
Upon this date, to you we hail,
The finest spears in this fine Vale.
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