Posted: 1st June 2016
*Editors note: I was rather excited on receiving the latest installment from “The Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh” as it affords us the opportunity to share some Asparagus images from the Connoisseur Magazine Archives with the Connoisseur Magazine Community of Readers!
I am suffering, suffering badly. It is the first of June and I have not eaten a single spear of proper asparagus. I have no plans to travel to the Mainland this month and the season ends on St John’s Eve – 24 June – so the chances are that I shall miss out entirely in 2016.
Now you will say there is asparagus everywhere you look: native English asparagus from the Vale of Evesham and elsewhere – the asparagus of Shakespeare, Elgar and Nigel Farage. I have seen this too, I have even bought some. Last week, campaigning in the Farmers’ Market outside London University, I found a stall operated by a thin wispy man who was (appropriately enough) selling thin wispy asparagus.
White Asparagus with a light Hollandaise sauce served in typical Belgian style in a Brussels restaurant
I asked him if he had any white stuff and wished I hadn’t: ‘It’s the same plant you know… [I knew], but it’s not good.’ I let it drop. I thought I might get a lecture on English nationalism if I were to go on. I inspected at his wares instead: the spears were all at the point of flowering.
The presence of fuzzy clusters at the top was one of two differences between the man and his asparagus: he was not only pale and white, he was as bald as an egg. ‘Do you have any thicker spears at least?’ I asked. He pointed to the thickest he had, which I bought, more out of politeness than anything else.
It was reasonably fresh at least, but I was not going to make a sauce for anything of such poor quality, it would lie alongside the meat: as a German friend is wont to say: green asparagus is a vegetable, white asparagus is a meal!
It is usually just a little too early for asparagus when I go to the Ventoux Valley in February. I see it in the fields close to the road leading from Mazan or Mormoiron, down by the River Auzon and identifiable by their semicircular ridges capped with plastic sheeting. In Provence the first spears normally appear in March. The plants are banked up like that to allow the pickers to cut in without exposing the plant to sunlight, and the plastic ensures that cracks in the soil will not result in any purple splashes in the tips. Some French people like a purple tint, and o tempora, o mores – some even eat it green.
The best asparagus might be the earliest, at least the Spanish think so. They say April asparagus is ‘for me, May asparagus for you and June asparagus for nobody.’ With the exception of Italy, most of Mainland Europe prefers to eat their asparagus white. I suspect the Italians brought the green fad to the United States, and that influenced us when we started producing commercial quantities of asparagus about a generation ago. If you let the plant break through the surface it will naturally go green, and it is far easier to cut. It will also develop a characteristic bitter taste which is quite distinct from the nutty delicacy of the white stuff.
The problem of finding people who are prepared to do the backbreaking work of cutting asparagus under the earth might end up by turning the rest of Europe green one day, but I am thankful that this has not happened yet.
In Germany, where asparagus amounts to something akin to a religion, the traditional seasonal farm worker came from Poland or further east. Before 1989, even senior civil servants would take their holidays in Germany and pick asparagus, thereby earning enough money to buy a car when they got home. It was thought that when the Poles achieved a higher standard of living they would disdain the work, but the panic seems to be over, although I don’t know where the present generation of pickers comes from, I assume there will be migrant labour that welcomes well paid work for many years to come.
Green Asparagus as an addition in a Roast Veal fillet Dish
Asparagus likes sandy soil, and the best regions of Germany (as well as the Marchfeld in Austria) where asparagus is grown are known to every native gourmand. Some of the best comes from Schwetzingen, near Heidelberg in Baden, or from the sandy suburbs of Stuttgart in Württemberg. In the Prussian east, Beelitz is best.
Germans cut and market it with the same attention that they might give to flowers.
“It is never even a day old when it reaches the roadside stalls and markets, and the stems are often placed in wet cotton wool to keep the asparagus fresh and prevent it from becoming dry and woody. It must be stiff: if it is bendy it is too old. “
Last year a kind German lady brought me a couple of kilos from a farmer’s market in Stuttgart: she had wrapped them in damp cotton tea cloths for the short plane journey. I naturally cooked them that night. White asparagus needs to be peeled a bit at the bottom end, and Germans cook it standing up in special lofty saucepans, with a knob of butter and a pinch of sugar and salt. It is ready when you can easily pierce the sides with a knife. The tips should stand well above the water line and be cooked by the steam.
In Central Europe – Germany, Austria and Holland – the six or seven week asparagus season is a blow out. A friend in Vienna complains every year that the city stinks of it. Most restaurants offer asparagus menus, with half a dozen different options from asparagus soup, made from the discarded tough end bits, to ‘solo’ asparagus, the thickest, meatiest spears.
In general, the ‘solo’ asparagus is served with a thick blanket of Hollandaise sauce.
If anything joins it, it will be the local new potatoes or possibly some thick cut cooked ham. Local wine producers also run competitions to find the ideal wine for asparagus, with interesting results: it is not always the asparagus-scented Sauvignon Blanc that works best: quite often it is a sappy, non-oaked Pinot Blanc or Silvaner, or a Grüner Veltliner in Austria.
Eating asparagus also has a worthy political tradition in Germany. Sometime in May 1935, a group of Saxo-Borussia corps students in Heidelberg were enjoying some spears of Schwetzingen’s best when the subject arose of how one was supposed to eat asparagus in polite society?
Did you pick it up with your fingers or cut it with a knife and fork? The students had been drinking, and had managed to upset some local Nazi sensibilities that day with their braying for wine and asparagus, not to mention a less than reverent attitude to the regime.
One of the students felt it was a question to ask the Führer, as he knew everything. A call was duly put through to the Chancellery in Berlin and was answered by one of Hitler’s adjutants. Hitler’s did not take the story well (although as a vegetarian he might well have eaten asparagus and without doubt he would have eaten it with both hands), and he introduced a ban on the socially smart German duelling societies which persisted until the end of the Third Reich. The association of eating asparagus (‘spargelessen’) and teasing the Nazi authorities remained, however, emerging every May until 1945.
I think of this often at times like these when I am deprived of decent asparagus.
Recipe for Hollandaise Sauce
Prepare the Hollandaise sauce. Melt the butter in a small pot. Put the egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and cayenne into a blender. Blend the eggs for 20-30 seconds at medium to medium high speed until lighter in color. Turn blender down to lowest setting and slowly drizzle in the hot melted butter while the blender is going. Continue to blend for a few seconds after all of the butter is incorporated. Taste the sauce and add more salt or lemon juice if needed. Keep warm while you are steaming the asparagus.