Hop shoots … how much would you pay? Photograph: AlamyIt’s the bit of the plant that brewers don’t use – and there’s even a festival to celebrate it. But, given how expensive it is, does it matter how good it tastes?You might think that no vegetable is worth €1,000 a kilo. That until there’s an outbreak of bizarre broccoli-based hyperinflation or a militia of paleo-diet-crazed oligarchs sieze control of the world’s cauliflower supply, there’s no way that anything you can feed to a pig could be more expensive than something you can buy in PC World. You would, however, be wrong. And what’s more, you’d be wrong about something that’s essentially a by-product of an industry devoted to inebriation.
In Belgium and Holland, you can pay up to €1,000 (£720) a kilo of hop shoots: the green tips of the hop plant – harvested from the parts of the plant that won’t go on to produce the flowers used in creating beer. Not only are they the world’s most expensive vegetable, given that they look a little like weedy tendrils of mint, they are also the world’s most expensive veg that looks like a runty herb.
“They cost so much because they’re absolutely back-breaking to harvest,” explains Melissa Cole, who distributed hundreds of shoots to London restaurants last week, as part of a two-day London Hop Shoot festival – organised by the London Brewer’s Alliance to raise awareness of the vegetable. “They don’t grow in a uniform row, so each one you pick requires you to hunch over and really hunt around. Plus they’re tiny so you need to pick hundreds to fill a carrier bag.”
But what about their flavour? After all, if their high price is attributable to the fact that farming them is as easy as using spaghetti as knitting yarn it doesn’t follow that they taste great.
“They’re a bit like nettles,” offers Daniel Doherty, head chef of Duck and Waffle as I try the dish he is offering as part of London Hop Shoot festival. He isn’t kidding. I try a few raw shoots; the stems are astringent and mouth-drying, the leaves are like grass. I feel like I’ve just taken a bite out of a hedgerow.
Cooked, though, it’s a different matter. The leaves take on a kale-like quality, with a faint tang of Chinese leaves like Choi Sim and there’s a nutty quality to the stems. Despite being referred to as “hop asparagus”, this vegetable is texturally closer to samphire than green spears. It probably doesn’t deserve the status implied from being known as the world’s most expensive vegetable, but it’s nice enough. You can definitely see why chefs would want to cook with it.
In fact, according to the people at the London Hop Shoot festival, since the weekend, they’ve been inundated with request for hop shoots from chefs “who have just woken up to a really unique ingredient they could start using”. But will it start to feature more widely on the UK’s menus any time soon? Seems unlikely. In Britain, hop shoots are still treated as a waste product: left to wither by brewers who consider their harvesting to be financially unviable. Short of a culture change that sees the beer industry letting foodies help themselves to something that would otherwise be wasted, they’re going to remain an incredibly expensive ingredient. And if that’s the case, it’s hard to see them making their way into restaurants. After all, as the chef at Duck and Waffle explains to me before serving me his dish, “Did I get these for free? Hell yeah! I can’t afford €1,000 per kilo!”