The hops are in flower, but I’m not making beer. Besides their better-known use, hops are also an excellent perennial vegetable. They have been described as the world’s most expensive vegetable, apparently fetching up to 1,000 euros per kilo. I find this rather astonishing as they are actually quite easy to grow.
The hop plant (Humulus lupulus) is a climber. Everything about it, from its twining stems to its roughened skin, is evolved to help it get into the sun by exploiting the woody structure of other plants. This means that if you are growing it in the garden you need to provide some sort of structure for it to climb up, as you do for runner beans. Hop plants are perennial, so the structure can be left in place for years. Traditional hops grow to several metres so for an ordinary garden it is a good idea to get one of the new dwarf varieties such as Prima Donna.
The peak time for picking hop shoots is in late spring when the young shoots start to emerge from the ground. The plants spread by underground rhizomes, so this can sometimes be in unexpected places. Harvesting is therefore combined with heading off a potential weed problem, cutting unwanted growing points down to the ground. I also find that the young growing tips are usable, if a little smaller and less productive, throughout the summer until the plant slows its growth, toughens up and turns its mind to flowering in the autumn. The constant nipping out of growing tips as you harvest them probably helps to keep the plant smaller, bushier and, by delaying flowering, tender for longer.
I usually harvest tips of about 10cm – longer than this and they are already becoming woody. The raw shoots are quite astringent so I always cook them, upon which they develop a lovely nutty flavour. In their early growth they produce enough to cook as a standalone vegetable. The cooking options are quite like green asparagus, which they are often compared to. They can be steamed or boiled, then served with butter or olive oil, or fried. They go very well blanched and then cooked in an omlette – if a little of the astringency is left for this dish it complements the egg well. Later in the year mine tend to go in stir-fries – my constant stand-by for using a large number of different vegetables harmoniously together. You don’t have to stop there: this post from Anne’s kitchen gives a wide range of gourmet hop recipes.
Once you have a hop plant established, propagation by digging up and transplanting the rhizomes is easy. They prefer to grow in sun or a little shade and do not require feeding.