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The A-Z of Scottish Food: A is for Asparagus

It caused a stir from the moment the first shoot popped out of the ground. 

And rightly so: nobody believed it was possible to grow asparagus on a commercial scale in the rainy West of Scotland until Robert Ritchie of Barrangary Farm, Bishopton, and James Mackie of neighbouring Barnhill Farm, Inchinnan, tried it. On their hands and knees they planted out 30,000 crowns on an elevated south-facing field of light, crumbly soil at Barnhill, and lifted the first crop a whole week earlier than the traditional start of the English asparagus season of St George's Day on May 23. They christened it Albaragus. It was so fresh it could almost be eaten raw (I can testify to that: I ate it straight from the field), and ticked all the right boxes for being as local as it was possible to get. Restaurants in Paisley, Renfrewshire, Glasgow and Edinburgh snapped it up, and the boys became instant local heroes during its short three-week season. They opened a van on the road to the farm, and sold almost 600 bunches. So much for the Scots not liking their veg, eh?

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A great achievement, then. Even so, I was surprised by the reaction to the news when I broke it in The Herald. Robert was filmed for Landward, the BBC Scotland countryside programme. And the West of Scotland MSP Annabel Goldie, a former leader of the Scottish Conservative Party and a Renfrewshire resident, put forward a motion in the Scottish Parliament proposing that it "considers this to be an exciting example of agricultural diversity, quality Scottish food production and, given that they are located in the west of Scotland and as asparagus does not like rain, a commendable demonstration of entrepreneurial innovation".

Now they're looking to next year, when they'll be able to crop 100% of the spears. Last year they only harvested 30% and left the rest to bolt, an established practice that helps feed the young root system. They're optimistic that the warm summer will have further helped develop them, producing thicker specimens. This is important: since asparagus is sold commercially in 500g bunches and in 250g bunches for retail, they were having to cram too many of their slim young spears in each bunch just to reach the weight.

"We expect to have four times the volume we had last year, so we need to expand our market," says James, who happens to run Fresh Direct, Scotland's largest supplier to the food service industry.

I should say that Sandy and Heather Pattullo have been commercially growing asparagus at Eassie Farm, Glamis, Angus, for several years.  

An extra bite

Allotments: flourishing due to unprecedented demand (though there aren't nearly enough plots to go round).

Apples: ancient Scots varieties are finding a future.

Do you have any other suggestions for the letter A? Let me know. 

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Local government

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