Asparagus for sale

by Ellie


Passing a vegetable stall this week I was struck by its neat standing rows of bunched asparagus and particularly by the smart white paper sleeves that contained each bundle, which seemed instantly to set them apart from the plastic shrouded supermarket asparagus offerings. I had to buy some.

Unwrapping the bundle at home I again admired the sleeve and its design: there was nothing extraneous on the label, none of that idealised rural imagery so common in food packaging today that speaks far too much of the hard sell. Instead the deep green stems reaching out of their paper base had been allowed to sell themselves. The wording on the label was largely restricted to the facts: ‘NORFOLK COUNTY CHOICE’ ‘ASPARAGUS GROWERS ASSOCIATION’. I was also told the name of the farmers (W.O & P.O Jolly of Roudham Farm). The statement ‘Fresh from the grower’ was as far as this label allowed itself to venture towards persuasion. I liked the visual hierarchy introduced through the simple use of coloured text but most of all I liked the expanse of white paper stock – gloss to repel moisture – and the avoidance of full ink coverage just for the sake of it.

Once unravelled and laid flat, I was struck by the strange shape of the label. It took me a while to fathom the reason for this: the bottom edge had been chamfered at both corners in order to allow the base of the sleeve to sit flat when wrapped around the asparagus, forming the slightly conical shape that holds the bundle firm. At first I thought the wrap might have been pre-guillotined or even die-cut into this strange shape but then I realised it was more likely that the cuts were made as part of the assembly process, with the wrap being positioned around the base of the stalks and the whole bundle then being guillotined to a sharp, clean finish.

Another aspect of the label that interested me were the cooking instructions printed on it: to prepare and cook by the boiling method the advised timing was ‘approximately 10 minutes’ for asparagus placed in a tall covered pan with only the tips left unsubmerged in water. For the conventional taste of today that is at the very least 3–4 minutes too long, making me wonder how long ago the wrap had been printed. An unscientific snap survey of my cookery books shelves revealed the following history of asparagus cooking times:

Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845): 20­–25 minutes

Mrs Beeton, Household Management (mid-1920s edition): 20 minutes

Elizabeth David, Summer Cooking (1955): 15–30 minutes, depending on size

Jane Grigson, English Food (1974): 20–40 minutes (covered in a tall pan standing in one inch of boiling water)

Delia Smith in 1978: 8–12 minutes

Delia Smith in 1993: 4–6 minutes

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in 2009: 4–8 mins, depending on thickness

To bring myself fully up to date I also checked the British Asparagus website; they were advising a cooking time of 3–6 minutes.

Judging from the above (and turning a blind eye to the website address clearly printed on the packaging) I very much enjoy the notion that the asparagus wrap was designed and printed in Norfolk sometime around 1980. But regardless of vintage, it remains a very effective piece of design. I’m sure the asparagus tasted better for it.