With the Onset of Spring Comes the Asparagus Season:
At Verger Saint Paul, the greengrocer at 97/99 rue Saint Antoine in the Marais district, we saw stacks of asparagus, both green and white. Asparagus is a spring vegetable, yet we’re into June and there are plentiful supplies of asparagus in the supermarkets and in greengrocers such as Verger Saint Paul. The very wet winter in France and the continued cold weather through spring has meant that the asperges vertes (green asparagus) and the asperges blanches, the special white variety, have been late in arriving at the food markets in Paris.
The Much Revered Asparagus
In France and other European countries like Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Spain, the asparagus is a much revered vegetable whose arrival announces the onset of spring. It seems that Louis XIV liked it so much that he had it cultivated in the gardens at Versailles. In Italy and Germany for instance, there are asparagus festivals during harvest time to celebrate the arrival of this spring vegetable.
Although we are very familiar with the green asparagus, the white ones are somewhat more intriguing for me. Rather than being a different plant species, apparently the white asparagus is the same plant type as the green asparagus and what causes it to be ivory colour is the deprivation of light when the vegetable is growing. Soil is mounded around the asparagus spears and without light, the asparagus cannot produce chlorophyll and therefore there is no green in the stalk.
In France, the shop-keepers are very knowledgeable about the produce they sell and French people always seek advise from the vendors. We asked the greengrocer whether it was better to get the green asparagus or the asperges blanches and what the difference in flavour was and he basically explained that the green ones could be cooked as is, whereas the white asparagus, which are slightly milder in flavour, needed peeling.
The white asparagus are more labour-intensive to grow and as such they are more expensive. The greengrocer was selling the asperges blanches at Euro 12.90 a kilo, whereas the green asparagus are half the price. Since we are in Paris, it is a treat to enjoy this royal vegetable and so we bought some for dinner.
Our White Asparagus Cooking Adventure
With a very blunt vegetable peeler in our apartment, I worked on peeling the fibrous and slightly woody asparagus, but Tony thought that the greengrocer had said that the best way was to cut a ring around the top, make a cut lengthwise and then peel it open, like a bark of a tree. Well his French is better than mine so I dared not argue. I let him have a go, but he quickly found out that his method didn’t work. After peeling off enough of the fibrous stems and cutting off the woody end bits, I boiled the asparagus until they were tender – it takes twice the time of the green asparagus.
My asperges blanches was served with a vinaigrette sauce as is common in the south rather than the richer hollandaise sauce of the north. We had some good quality parmigiano reggiano and bread with it and it was delicious. The asperges blanches was surprisingly sweet.
So in spite of not having the right equipment and doing things the hard way, the end result was a delicious meal of seasonal French white asparagus. If you can get hold of the white asparagus, do try them!