Asparagus: the most luxurious vegetable celebrated in Europe each spring
Asparagus is like cherries, it comes to the market in a precious, short window in spring, you eat as much as you can and then best forget it until the next season. This spear should play the main role on the stage of your plate each spring. Unlike any other cultivated plant, the pea-hued, green, purple, and the white asparagus show the progression from the wild nature gifts to manicured human perfection. I’ve tasted them all, including the world’s best, and there is lot of rubbish in the haystack.
As far as 2000 BCE, the prized vegetable was cultivated by the Ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. Throughout the rule of King Louis XIV, it was reserved to the tables of the courts. Asparagus, the spear of spring abundance, has been the pride of the European tables for centuries. Also known as sparrowgrass, it is so satisfying that it can replace meat in any meal. Well, the price for top quality rivals the best cuts of beef or top French poultry. Its history in human gourmandise is as intriguing as the recipes by the world’s most known chefs, that I share further down.
Today, the best artisans growing it are found in France (mainly Provence for green and purple, Alsace, Loire and Brittany for the meaty thick white) and its neighbours like Germany. In Bavaria the laborious giant white phallus is worshipped in festivities throughout spring. In Italy and also in Provence the wild ultra-thin stems (known in French as balais) with less bitterness and delicate pea hues are rare, hard to reproduce elsewhere specimens.
Wild delicious beauty
The wild, gentle green and sometimes dark eggplant skin-like asparagus looks like barley with its flowery tips. In the South of France it grows alongside vineyards in the scrublands after fire. In a lobster or squab salad à la Roger Vergè (of the legendary Moulin de Mougins; a bistro now, it no longer pushes the boundaries of the French cuisine) this slightly bitter savage plant is best used sparingly. Any wild vegetable is ruled by seasonal weather and like mushrooms treats us with its rare occurrence.
Green asparagus simply undergoes photosynthesis above the ground, no tricks. The purple or violet asparagus is most popular with some top French chefs, yet it turns green after cooking so there is no point in paying more for it as for the same quality fresh and thick green spears. The nutritional value differs also slightly. The green asparagus is a more rich source of the antioxidants rutin, ascorbic acid, tocopherol, glutathione and ferulic acid. White asparagus also contains antioxidants including phenolic acids and flavonoids, but overall lower antioxidant content than green spears.
Top French chefs like Anne Sophie Pic get the white Grolim and Thielim varieties from Domaine De Roques-Hautes by Sylvain Erhardt. Yet, when in Bavaria this spring, we learned that here they grow the best white asparagus in the world. What a treat! For gourmands at any level, those massive thumb-thick white spears shaded (like endive and rhubarb)underground or with hay are best served simple. We asked just for rice, served plain at Lanserhof and extra virgin olive oil. No salt, pepper, any sauce was needed to decorate the queen of her class. As the germans proudly and rightfully say – the “white gold”. This level of quality would be shameful to be served with the typical hollandaise sauce, as its delicate purity would be overshadowed by the rich sauce. They even serve it over a schnitzel. Oh la la!
In Bavaria, the most famous places for asparagus are Schrobenhausen with tertiary sand with a silt and clay content in soil (There is even an asparagus museum) and Abensberg. Here is a map of asparagus sellers around Munich.
Schrobenhauser asparagus is officially registered by the EU as a protected geographical indication of origin, PGI for short. In addition to the Schrobenhausen origin, this also ensures gentle processing. So it must not be watered after the harvest for the purpose of storage, as this would result in a loss of taste. It is grown to a maximum length of 22 cm. The longer an asparagus spear is, the higher the likelihood of having a straw hard asparagus end. The length limitation guarantees that you can only get and enjoy tender asparagus spears. Plus, an even cooking.
It takes three years for an asparagus plant to produce its first tip. To produce white asparagus, sandy soil is piled up into knee-high banks. White asparagus grows entirely surrounded by earth, which protects the slender stalks from sunlight exposure and keeps them from turning green. This also affects the subtle flavour. Like salsify harvested in spring in Southern Germany, known as oyster plant and scorso nero in Italy, it grows best in sandy soil.
Buying quality asparagus
Whether you eat white, purple, wild or green asparagus it must be fresh and firm. It snaps sharply just bellow halfway down when you bend it (except the string-thin wild). The taste turns from a sweet yet distinct mild flavor to bitter as it ages. From harvesting to consumption, the whole process should be completed in about 12-24 hours. An old german farmer’s rule says asparagus is best when “Morgens gestochen und mittags verzehrt” (Picked in the early morning and eaten at midday).
Asparagus is the first fresh vegetable or fruit grown in Germany that can be eaten by the locals, thus the reason to celebrate. Spargelzeit officially begins in April, and harvesting finishes on 24 June, the Christian celebration of the nativity of John the Baptist. At an asparagus festival during a spear-peeling contest look for a white asparagus queen, whose duty it is to represent and promote their region’s produce. The city of Schwetzingen claims to be the “Asparagus Capital of the World”. Pop-up stands and farmers’ markets grade it by quality, offering the spargel neatly stacked in piles and sprayed with water to keep them fresh.
If you want to eat like the French kings did, ask for the Argenteuil provenance near Paris is the sandy soil region. The Loire Valley is a popular choice for top Parisian chefs like Alain Passard. At the best gourmet shops like Terroirs d’Avenir in Paris, you find the grandest quality. Farmers markets around Central and Southern Europe (Provence and Turin are my favourites) also offer often the freshest choice. Do not buy asparagus at supermarket, ever. It traveled from afar and is far from fresh! So it will always retain less of its own moisture, be more artificially watered so its taste diluted and the stems more woody as it was picked a while ago.
Look for the characteristic velvety sheen on its skin. The tips should be intact and firm, and a slight purple tinge is normal. Size matters, so ideally buy similarly thick spears so they cook evenly together. The smell should be very clean vegetal, never odour of rot. Do not keep it in plastic bag, but in paper. If you don’t intend to cook them right away, wrap them in a damp kitchen towel and store in the refrigerator’s humidity-controlled compartment laid down always above anything so they do not break or keep them ideally standing tops up in a bowl with water.
I took the strict Bavarian attitude to freshness to my heart insisting on my first local asparagus to be picked on the same day. To go, it was more challenging and I adjusted my recipes accordingly. First cooking it to my Czech parents, then later flying it with me back to Côté d’Azur. Growing in complexity, and sauciness the older the massive white spears got.
The most important tools you need is a sharp and flexible flat peeler. Microplane makes the Ferrari of graters. As I cook vegetables often, I also bought a special tall and narrow pot with a removable basket. This asparagus steamer is not only ideal for not damaging the asparagus but also other long vegetables blanch and boil in it perfectly. The water drips into the reversed lid. The menu by Alain Passard at L’Arpege below shows an optional steaming process, wrapping the bottoms in parchment paper and tying them just below the tips.
Removing the bitter skin of thick asparagus, the white vegetable shows a delicate and sweet flavour far from its green cousin.
First chop any woody hard bottoms. The white variety is peeled downwards starting just below the tip. In contrast, green asparagus is usually peeled from the bottom towards the tip. Peel only the thicker than your finger green asparagus, never peel the wild or less than your pinky wide spears. Put the ends and peelings into a narrow tall pot or a wide, shallow pan. Cover with boiling water (use your kettle), no lid, and leave to simmer for maximum 1o minutes. Remove all the bits and discard them before adding other seasoning like salt, butter, olive oil or herbs.
When you blanch the stems, you can tie (with a string not too tight to mark their skins) the spears in bunches together (maximum five thick ones) so the tender tips do not break. The tips should stay out of the gently boiling water as the steam is enough to cook them. I like mine al-dente which means about six minutes cooking for thumb-thick white asparagus, and two-to-five minutes for the green stems. The thinner, the shorter the cooking time (wild asparagus is ready in one minute). Use thongs to remove it from the water if you do not use the pot with an inserted basket.
You can dip it in an ice bath (over a strainer so the tips do not come in direct contact with the ice) after the cooking but if you have kept the time short, there is no need. It’s nice to taste the spears warm or at least at room temperature. Some chefs even believe that the icing dilutes the flavour.
Grilling asparagus on skewers is also nice option that is popular in Japan. Like a vegetarian yakitori (grilled chicken). There is also a wild sensai vegetable called Japanese asparagus, but it is nothing like the Western crop.
To keep it warm, wrap the cooked bunches in a slightly wet kitchen towel until ready to serve. Do not put it in fridge as that as much as cooking or water preserving them in jars drains their flavour away. Lay on a dry kitchen towel.
Across France, Italy and Germany, white asperge or Spargel is mostly – and arguably best – served plainly, cooked in a light stock and plated up with melted butter, boiled potatoes, plain rice or savoury pancakes. White asparagus is traditionally also served with ham (Spargel mit Schinken) or with hollandaise sauce (Spargel mit holländischer Sauce). Eggs are popular accompaniments with the green thicker spears.
MY favourite recipes with white asparagus are:
Alain Passard, the vegetable maestro serves his white asparagus simply wrapped in a thin ribbon of rhubarb and fried in salted butter for 60 minutes with whatever falls into his garden on that very morning. The white Guecelard asparagus wrapped in ultra thin layer of rhubarb, adding gentle acidity
served with a confit of red beets, little sugar & roasted shallots like in a savoury tart, was superlative-rich last spring at L’Arpege.
TRADITIONAL Hollandaise sauce needs attention. Keep the heat low, stir it very, very slowly and you should end up with a smooth, thick sauce. If it splits, stir in a bit more egg yolk and it should come back together easily.
For the hollandaise (Serves 4):
4 medium-sized egg yolks
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
A pinch of salt
A pinch of cayenne pepper
2 tbsp cold water
Cook the asparagus according to your preferred method as mentioned previously.
For the hollandaise, whisk the egg yolks in a medium-sized bowl with the lemon juice, salt and cayenne pepper. Heat the butter until it has just melted – you don’t want to let it get too hot – then add the water and drizzle the mixture very, very slowly into the egg, whisking constantly. Pour back into the pan and cook on a very low heat, stirring constantly (or whisking, if you spot any lumps) until the sauce has thickened.
Spoon the sauce over the asparagus and serve with the potatoes and parsley.
MY favourite recipes with green asparagus are:
In France, almost all grand chefs work with this delicate vegetable between April and June. Provence generally grows the best green version. Each year I venture to one of Alain Ducasse’s restaurants trying something with l’asperge. At his signature restaurant in Monte-Carlo the giant spears are treated with an utmost respect, while at his rural Provençal Abbey, a more generous “cookpot” (often with gently poached eggs) emerges. In his cookbook Nature, his recipes for Asparagus Gratin and Mimosa style with gribiche (egg, tarragon, gherkins, cum yogurt sauce) are the most Francophone variations.
In Italy, asparagi are usually served simple. Unlike artichoke and tomatoes, asparagus is particularly highlighted on the restaurant’s menus during its short spring feast. In Friuli the white spears are cultivated and harvested in April. I agree with the chef Giorgio Locatelli: “Asparagus should be served as an entire dish – served with eggs, Parmesan, butter or savoury zabaione made with white wine.” His recipe in my favourite Italian cookbook Made in Italy Food and Stories, adds a shallot vinaigrette and chives.
In California you find excellent vegetables too, usually in more complex and generous preparations which is sometimes a shame for the high quality produce being overshadowed, but the plates are always satisfying. Some of my favourite asparagus recipes comes from the LA- based chef Jeremy Fox. His Poached jumbo asparagus a la Flamande, Belgium-inspired generous dish with home cured egg yolk licks your lips with a relish. It is also mixed in his salad of Spring vegetable and sunflower panzanella made with rye bread.
There were some terrible mess ups with asparagus too. The the past summer at Noma in Copenhagen, the molded white asparagus tasted just terrible and nobody at our table enjoyed this plate. Overcooked asparagus in soups can also waste the potentially magnificent produce.
It is notoriously hard to pair it with wine they say, but I disagree. Rosé from Provence or a more elegant white Burgundy like Meursault or even Loire Sancerre (crisp Sauvignon Blanc) work well. Savour until it is still fresh!