Asparagus: white or green?

Even after 30 years living in the Upper Rhine region where white asparagus rules, I have to admit green asparagus is still the one that does it for me. I love everything about the green: its fresh colour, assertive flavour and crunchy texture. Best of all, unlike the white varieties, it doesn’t need peeling. All you have to do is take a hold of each spear down near the bottom end and sidle gently up the spear till you reach the point where it snaps cleanly in two and the chewy root end comes away cleanly.

Monsieur Girroy's asparagus insignia

For years I laboured under the misconception that white and green asparagus were two different plants. I learnt the error of my ways after a visit to our local asparagus farmer, Monsieur Werner Girroy, who also does duty as the Vice-President and Grand Piqueur of Alsace’s Confrérie de l’Asperge (Asparagus Fraternity). It turns out, explains Monsieur Girroy, that white asparagus would be green if it ever got the chance to poke its nose up above the sandy soils in which it grows. Its ivory colour is due to the fact that it’s mounded over with earth (‘blanched’, like celery) and never permitted to see the light of day.

Asparagus officinalis is one of the posher members of the lily family (its more plebeian relations are leeks, garlic and onions), and has been considered a delicacy since Roman times. Both Cato and Columella chronicle its cultivation, while Pliny the Elder noted that the best and most impressive specimens might weigh in at 4 ounces or 100 grams each. During Europe’s Dark Ages things went a bit quiet on the asparagus front and the vegetable only came into its own again under Louis XIV, the Sun King, who had it grown in his hothouses at Versailles to lengthen its growing season.

The 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys was also partial to the spears: in 1667 he records buying a bundle of ‘sparrow-grass’ in Fenchurch Street for one shilling and sixpence. Madame de Pompadour was a fan, appreciating it particularly for its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. Her favourite dish combined asparagus tips and eggs. Perhaps the latter were soft-boiled and the tips dipped into them, like soldiers in the breakfast boiled egg – arguably the best way to deal with asparagus.  Colette, who warned that ‘the three great stumbling blocks in a girl’s education were homard à l’americaine, a boiled egg and asparagus’ would surely have agreed.

Around here, during the season (April till June), people pay surprisingly large sums of money to go out to restaurants to eat plainly boiled asparagus with different sorts of ham and three sauces: vinaigrette, mayonnaise and hollandaise. It’s hardly a test of the chef and you could probably do just as well yourself at home. And if you choose green you won’t even have the hassle of peeling. Here’s one way:

For 2 people you need a kilo of asparagus, which you will trim by snapping off the ends as described above. Then, rather than boiling them (a lot of the flavour and the vitamin content will leach out into the water), lay them in a roasting pan or earthenware cassola in a single layer, sprinkle with coarse salt and a generous splash of olive oil. Roast them (best of all with combined grill/broiler and fan) at 200 C for 12-15 minutes or until a knife inserted in the thick ends meets just the tiniest resistance and the tips are just beginning to take a little colour.

Then you can go the usual ham/hollandaise route. Or take a tip from the Hostal Sport in Falset (Priorat), where they serve the green spears with salsa romesco, that totally irresistible Catalan sauce of toasted nuts, tomatoes, loads of garlic, a little chile and a generous glug of olive oil. The sunset-coloured sauce trickled over the tips of the bright green asparagus hits most of my buttons. A little lightly smoked ham doesn’t go amiss either, like the jambon cru from the Ferme Goettelmann in Meistratzheim, available from Strasbourg’s Saturday morning Marché des Producteurs.

And the wine? A fine, fragrant, dry Muscat d’Alsace with a touch of bitterness in the finish – Thierry Meyer of recently singled out the Domaine Weinbach’s Muscat Réserve 2010 from the redoubtable Madame Faller et ses Filles in Kaysersberg as an unusually fine example..

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