THE British asparagus season is upon us, and for this tasty treat we can thank the Romans.

The veg was so prized by them that they sent out fleets of ships to gather the delicacy. After working out how to cultivate it, they spread it throughout their kingdom.

Asparagus is a member of the lily family and closely related to onions and leeks. Crops don't spring up overnight. Crowns are planted about 12 inches deep into sandy soil and are not harvested until the third year, to encourage the drown to develop a well-anchored root. Once established, an asparagus bed can be productive for as much as 15 years and the plants can develop roots as deep as 20ft.

If you can't cook asparagus immediately, the National Farmers' Union says you can place the stems upright in a container with a little water to cover the ends and store in the fridge.

To cook, remove the woody end by holding the spear between thumb and forefinger and bend until it snaps.

To boil or steam, place in a traditional asparagus kettle (a tall saucepan) with boiling water to cover the thick stems and let steam do the trick for the tender tips. Cooking time is three to six minutes.

Asparagus can also be roasted or chargrilled. Brush the spears with olive oil and cook at a high temperature (ten minutes for roasting, five minutes for chargrill). You can also pop them on the barbecue, but not too close to the coals and turn frequently.

The season for British asparagus is May through June.

Updated: 10:31 Wednesday, May 19, 2004