These are one of the earliest green shoots to emerge each year, snaking up through the hedgerows, curling around sturdier, now dormant, shrubs at a phenomenol pace . . .
Hops were first cultivated by the Romans not for the fragrant bitter female cones which we now use to flavour beer, but for the delicate tendrils that thread through hedges each spring. These have a wonderful aromatic flavour which is a wonderful early season alternative to asparagus. Ever since the days of Ancient Egypt they have been valued for their medicinal qualities and used to treat liver complaints and indigestion. Recent research suggests they can also reduce the effects of the menopause.
They have also come into vogue in expensive restaurants which use the thin, curling, shoots to enhance choice dishes. Indeed, retailing at around £3 per 100g, what was once dubbed ‘poor man’s asparagus’ is now one of our most expensive vegetables, available only from a handful of exclusive suppliers.
Hops grow wild in profusion along many hedgerows, however, particularly in hop-farming areas such as Kent and Hereford. Here the thin leading shoots can be gathered for free until early May when they become decidedly coarse and hairy. These should be cooked as soon as possible – try steaming them and then smothering with melted butter or incorporating them in an omelette made with the freshest of free range eggs.