Few culinary events are as hotly anticipated in our house as the beginning of the asparagus season in Formby, Merseyside. Formby is world renowned for the quailty of its asparagus and as soon as April ends and May starts we eagerly wait for our trips to buy veg Bury Market in the hope that Brian, our veg man and all round veg growing extraordinaire, will announce that the first asparagus of the year is there. Brian is based out at Hesketh Bank near Southport and is lucky enough to have access to one of the remaining asparagus farmers in Formby, meaning that this beautiful delicacy makes it from the Merseyside Coast to the market in less than twenty four hours. You certainly wouldn't get that kind of service from a supermarket!
The coastal area around Formby was, until the mid-nineteenth century, regarded as a "sandy waste", useful mainly as rabbit warren. Following the construction of the Liverpool, Crosby and 'Southport Railway in 1848, considerable supplies of fertiliser in the form of 'night-soil' from Liverpool became available as a sewer system had not yet been completed in the city. This enabled local farmers to "improve" and bring into cultivation the previously uncultivated sand dune area, particularly suitable for their chosen crop - asparagus. This went on to develop into over 200 acres of asparagus beds, with asparagus becoming a very important local product, the quality of which made Formby well known nationally. Cultivation decreased after WW2 and is now continued on only two farms in Formby, with the support of the National Trust who own much of the land around this part of the coast.
The season for asparagus is tantalisingly short, around 6 weeks in most years, but to me Formby asparagus is a great example of what local food can be. It represents local, seasonal food at its best; something so tasty and fresh that once you have eaten it pale, out of season imitations just won't do anymore. It also represents the role that local food can play in cultural identity, with Formby asparagus being key to the heritage and identity of its local area. And, on top of all this, it shows what heroes people like Brian are, and the farmers who work hard to maintain and promote these culinary and horticultural traditions, playing a huge part, almost wholly unsung, in making collective cultural heritage and identity stronger and securer for us all through the sensitive preservation of local food traditions.
Oh... and did I mention?... It tastes realy dang good too!