Dispatches from the Kitchen Garden: 13 May 2017
WAITING FOR ASPARAGUS AND
THE LOST HISTORY OF DUBLIN’S SEAKALE
This is the second year of our asparagus bed and we must stand by and let the spears sprout and turn into fern because no picking is advised until next Spring. What has sprung up looks good – thick and wholesome, touched with purple - but I had hoped that there would be a little more at this stage, even, as it is, off limits. The spears have now shot up, beanstalk fashion, into fronds a metre or more high.
We make a policy of never eating asparagus out of season, so no Peruvian stuff for us. I’m amused that the US encouraged Peru to switch from cocaine production to that of the much more useful and esculent asparagus without first checking the local soils and climate.
Cocaine, it seems, likes higher altitudes and something with more substance than the sandy coastal soils that asparagus needs. The upshot has been thriving asparagus and cocaine industries in in different parts of Peru, and the wholesale destruction of the US’s domestic asparagus industry in Washington State. They managed all this well before the advent Trump.
Anyway, we wait for the local or relatively local stuff, the most alien being from Spain (and not bad at the price).
However, generally this year we have consoled ourselves for the lack in our own garden with asparagus from Marks & Spencer, Avoca and Caviston’s, all grown in the Wye Valley in Herefordshire, one of the loveliest English counties and one, clearly, with lots of sandy soil. There are, of course, scattered outbreaks of Irish asparagus and you will find it at the occasional farmer’s market but the only bunch I’ve encountered so far was rather wizened and withered. I’m told there’s good stuff to be had from Drummond House in Co Louth, better known for garlic.
We eat the stuff in vinaigrette form, that is steamed and cooled and then bathed in a mustardy dressing and topped with grated hard-boiled egg; and Johann last week produced an exceptional little dish of asparagus, Annascaul black pudding, fried egg and crisped chorizo. However, we always go back to classical simplicity: steamed and served with hollandaise.
I can never understand why we don’t see more seakale or, to give it its official monniker, Crambe maritima. It’s something that tends to survive only in the gardens of such large country houses as are still lived in by the stranded gentry. You will get it at Ballymaloe, at Ballyvolane House near us in County Cork at the moment and I contributed root cuttings or “thongs” last year to Richard Corrigan for planting at Virginia Park in Co. Cavan.
Seakale grows wild by the sea in some areas and I’ve frequently come upon it on the stony beaches of Sussex where traditionally it was blanched by piling pebbles around and over the emerging shoots in Spring.
Eleanour Sinclair Rohde in her sound but mildly eccentric Vegetable Cultivation and Cookery (1938) advises us to steam seakale shoots for an hour, which is advice that I have not taken. But when I first read it, I noticed that she refers to seakale as being “a native of our western and southern coasts, also of parts of the Irish coast near Dublin…” She goes on to claim that “seakale is said to have been cultivated in Dublin longer than anywhere else.”
This intrigued me and I investigated.
Warburton in his History of the City of Dublin (1818) says that while seakale cultivation in England was very recent “so long ago as 1764 it was cultivated in the gardens of Dublin, and the seeds sold in the shops. When the seeds were sown they were covered with stones.”
“The shoots were used in the Spring as they are now, and preferred to any other sort of kale. It was the practice, however, to boil them in two different waters, to extract the salt with which the plant was supposed to be impregnated from its marine origin. The valuable property which also distinguishes it from all other kale, that the root is perennial and will last cutting 40 years, was well known… It grows at present in great abundance on every part of the sandy shore round the bay, and is cultivated in every garden in and near the metropolis.”
I wonder what happened to the seakale of Dublin. I know the coastline from Sandymount to Dalkey pretty well and have never come across seakale, at least in a form that I recognise. The plant features in the Irish and Northern Irish Red Data List of endangered species under the heading “near threatened”.
Anyway, despite this current rarity in the wild and, indeed in cultivation, I’m happy to report that seakale is remarkably easy to grow; much easier than asparagus, in fact.
We got our plants from Johnstown Garden Centre in County Kildare, where I stumbled upon them in the herbaceous perennials section (this being where they, strictly speaking, belong). In the meantime I almost lost them as I neglected the corner of plot in which I planted them at first and I had to do some very tender and intensive propagating.
Now they are planted on a slight ridge – thanks to our heavy soil – and they are powering away. In the Autumn, the fleshy foliage dies back and needs to be cleared away to the compost heap. In mid-Spring the crowns or semi-subterranean part of the plant, start to bud again and this is when you need to cover them to exclude light.
In due course you harvest the blanched shoots – three or four picks from each plant before exposing them, once again to the light so that they can photosynthesise and build up their strength again.
I pick off the flower buds because I think I read somewhere once that this is a wise move, but I can’t quite remember. If you don’t you get rather lovely little white flowers which contrast beautifully with the grey-blue of the foliage.
Instructions for cultivation are sometimes hard to find. Joy Larkcom ignores seakale in her otherwise encyclopaedic Grow Your Own Vegetables but she gives brief advice in the latest edition of her excellent The Salad Garden (Frances Lincoln); my original veg bible, W. E. Shewell-Cooper’s Complete Vegetable Grower deals mainly with forcing it.
Actually forcing seakale, which involves heat in deepest Winter, exhausts the plants – so they say – and they are discarded. However, simply excluding light or blanching is fine for a month or six weeks but after a few cuts you need to let the foliage grow, which it will do luxuriantly until dying away completely in the late Autumn just leaving the crowns.
I use black buckets from the local agri co-op for blanching but traditional seakale pots were used and you can still get these elegant items from WhichfordPottery.com.
Some old vegetable books advise the grower to surround the crowns with chicken wire to hold in place tree leaves gathered in Autumn. These are piled on top of the plants in order to exclude light – a clever ploy, but one that would encourage slugs, I imagine.
Cooking is easy, just cut into suitable lengths and steam until tender; 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the stoutness. They are every bit as good as asparagus served with hollandaise and are delicious cold with a vinaigrette. We sometimes dip short lengths in tempura batter and serve with a soya and lime dip.
Our latest experiment – adapted from a suggestion by Lucinda O’Sullivan on Twitter – involved brief steaming, then tossing on a hot pan in butter and dressing with ponzu and sesame oil. It may seem a lot for such a subtly flavoured vegetable but this treatment actually enhanced the natural nuttiness of seakale.