Asparagus has been steadily growing in popularity among British consumers. Some 483,000 UK households purchased asparagus in the final year of the last century – a figure that represented just 2.1% of the total number of households within the UK. By 2015, 17% of households purchased asparagus, nearly all of it green. Are UK buyers missing a trick by not introducing more colour into the asparagus mix, or is there simply not enough white and purple product available?
Even at the top of a very impressive growth curve, growers and buyers believe there is scope for this market to expand much further. They point to the fact that in 2006 Jamie Oliver backed asparagus via his link with Sainsbury’s. The short-term impact was a rapid upswing in demand throughout that season. Longer term, the effects are more meaningful – bringing new people into the category gave the asparagus industry something to work with and it has seized the opportunity with relish.
Although the UK imports more than 14,000 tonnes of asparagus every year – most of it by air from Peru, a big proportion of the newfound demand is for British-grown asparagus, which is available during a pretty short season from April through to late June. Producers here have almost trebled the amount of asparagus being grown in the UK over the last 15 years.
White retail trials proved encouraging
Virtually all of this home-grown asparagus is green, which is different to most other European countries. In Germany, the largest of Europe’s consumer markets, the overwhelming preference is for white asparagus, sometimes known as edible ivory or white gold.
Germans eat around 2kg of white asparagus every year, which represents 95% of the total asparagus market within that country. So great is the popularity of the product that a planned white asparagus festival due to be held near Berlin in 2015 was cancelled. Around 20,000 people had indicated on Facebook that they were planning to attend – the police recommended that the festival be called off, as they feared there would be a stampede!
Within the UK, however, white asparagus is rarely eaten, and at least one German-owned retailer has tried to build up interest. Jon Covey, fruit and veg buyer at Lidl, says: “Given our strong connection to Germany, where white asparagus is extremely popular – we have always been keen to try to build this product in the UK.
“We ran trials in selected regions in 2013 and 2014 but these did not prove that successful, with green asparagus far outstripping the sales of white asparagus,” he reveals. “We remain big fans of white asparagus. The UK consumer is undoubtedly very focused on green asparagus, but this year has proven that customers are putting more and more trust in our freshness and quality and we have seen very encouraging sales in more niche lines as a result.
“We are therefore likely to run trials again in 2016 on this superb line.”
Market leader Tesco has also trialled white asparagus, and has increased the amount it has sold year on year.
Very little white asparagus is produced commercially within the UK and Duncan Parsonage of foodservice supplier Fresh Direct believes one of the reasons for that is because it’s a labour intensive crop.
“As it comes into the light, it has to be covered over and carefully monitored,” he explains. “Because of that, it doesn’t have the depth of flavour that green asparagus possesses. More preparation is also needed to use white asparagus – you have to get the peeler out and do some work, while with green asparagus you just snap the stems and cook. I haven’t seen white asparagus grown commercially in the UK, we import it from Holland, Belgium and France.”
Although it has made far more noise than its white counterpart, a similar situation exists with purple asparagus. Only small quantities are grown by a limited number of British growers and talking to the industry, there seems little chance that this situation will change dramatically over the next few years.
Tim Jolly of Norfolk Asparagus says: “We do not grow either white or purple asparagus. England has no tradition of white asparagus. Some growers have tried purple. However, the yields are much less than green and the premium paid does not seem to cover the difference.”
Looking at white and purple asparagus, Parsonage thinks that there is slightly more scope for greater sales of purple asparagus. “Purple varieties look nice when raw,” he notes. “They are slightly sweeter, and much juicier than green varieties.
“Most chefs are using purple asparagus grated as a raw vegetable, shaving it through a mandolin, tossed in a light dressing. This is a very nice way of using it. We need chefs to take it up and fuel demand and consumer attention for the produce.”
The problem is that home-grown supplies are low: “To promote purple asparagus to big national groups, you have to have supplies for them to taste one year, and sell the next,” he adds. “We need growers to make a commitment even to growing just an acre or so each year. It will be a long haul unless a celebrity chef takes it on board like Jamie Oliver did in the past.”
Market development support crucial
Intelligent marketing has been instrumental in the growth of the asparagus category and it will no doubt be key to the continuing development of the sector, whether green, white or purple. Consumers generally need to be given the confidence to prepare and cook asparagus.
Attractive promotional material at the point-of-sale has been successful in driving impulse buys, as it has an emphasis on the home-grown nature of the product during its season. The British Asparagus association has played on this element, with asparagus tours and collaborations with top chefs.
Another answer may lie in product development. In April 2015, Tesco trialled a new variety called Burgundine – a purple and green cross, designed specifically as a new salad crop. Tesco believed it could prove popular with office workers looking for a healthy snack. Another initiative launched in October is linking growers Cobrey Farms, ICA and Cranfield University in a research project designed to extend the British asparagus season by storing produce in dynamically controlled atmospheres.
There is clearly belief in the industry that asparagus still has scope for considerable growth and that there is room for development for gras of different colours. Consumers generally are willing to try and to experiment, but of course they need the produce to do so. Finding that product in sufficient volume is the challenge facing buyers across the land.
Update: Hargreaves Plants launches Vittorio white asparagus
In early February UK-based asparagus and berry nursery Hargreaves Plants announced the introduction of a new white asparagus variety to its offer. The early season Vittorio variety, which is said to be comparable to Gijnlim, is designed to suit European markets. The new variety was launched by the company at Fruit Logistica 2016.