Seasonal tips: the joy of asparagus

New season asparagus gets French gourmets salivating quite unlike any other vegetable. Jane Hanks looks at multi-coloured options

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When asparagus first comes into the shops it is a welcome sign that spring has arrived, with promises of better weather after a long winter.

Asparagus is cultivated throughout France by more than 3,000 producers. The majority, 33%, are in the Nouvelle Aquitaine, 25% in Occitanie and 13% in the Grand Est. In Europe, Germany is the leading producer, followed by Spain and then Italy.

You can buy asparagus in four different colours; white, violet, green and purple. The last one, and the rarest, owes its colour to its variety, but the first three depend on the way it has been grown.

White asparagus grows underground. Violet asparagus is grown mostly underground but is harvested just as it pushes through the soil so that it is very lightly exposed to sunlight, and is picked just as it begins to change colour.

Green asparagus is not picked until it has been exposed to the sun for several days and turns colour as the chlorophyll develops. In France, it is the white asparagus which is most widely grown and is the favourite with consumers.

Cécile Genty from Asperges de France, which represents around a third of production, says the reason for this is down to tradition: “For me white and green asparagus are two very different products. When I went to the UK, I discovered that green asparagus is very popular there, but the French have always preferred the white, which has a milder taste.

“Even though the grower has to build up mounds of earth for the white asparagus to grow underground, it is easier and less costly to cultivate than green asparagus, which is open to the elements and can more easily fall prey to the ravages of parasites.”

A new asparagus spear sees the light of day (above).

Asparagus has been eaten and appreciated as a food fit for royalty and the Gods since antiquity. An Egyptian fresco dating from 3,000BC shows bunches of asparagus being offered to the Gods. The first traces of cultivation in France date from the 15th century and in the 16th century it was enjoyed in the royal court and was highly prized. It was called the Royal Vegetable or Edible Ivory and was particularly appreciated by Henri III and then by Louis XIV, who wanted it served all year round. To this end his royal gardener, La Quintinie, developed a way to grow it under shelter.

It remained a very expensive vegetable, only affordable by the rich, until the 19th century when new production methods and new varieties made it easier to grow. It was first grown around Paris but gradually expanded into the Val de Loire, Aquitaine, Provence and the Midi.

Cultivation tips

Cultivation of this vegetable is particularly complex and demands a great deal of attention. It is grown from seed where it is left to develop in a nursery for two years. The developed seedlings can then be planted out, but they will only produce asparagus spears in their third year.

Rémi Tardieu has 5.5 hectares of white, violet and green asparagus at Villasavary, Aude. He says he loves producing this crop, as he enjoys eating it himself and likes working the soil, despite it being difficult to grow: “I do not think many people realise that it is one of the most complex and most labour intensive vegetables to cultivate.

“We pick the spears during a two month period when they grow at different rates and new ones appear every day. This means we have to pick them, by hand, every day, selecting the ones that are around 25cm long and with the tip still firm and closed.”

He says the asparagus will continue to produce spears, but they stop picking after two months so that the plant can grow and develop leaves, which will allow the plant to build up reserves to produce new shoots the following year. The plant can grow up to 1.5m.

Some of the crops Mr Tardieu grows on his farm are organic, but not the asparagus. However, he says that the life-cycle of the asparagus means that even if the farmer does not grow organically, the part you eat will never contain any pesticides: “Asparagus is fairly hardy, but sometimes farmers use chemical products on the leaves in summer to fight against some insects. However, this does not reach the spears which grow much later in the year.”

Half of his asparagus is cultivated to be white or violet and the other half, green. “All of it is the same variety of plant. The green is more popular here in the south than in the north, and we are seeing a rise in demand from consumers. Cookery TV programmes and magazines often feature recipes with green asparagus, so it is in fashion at the moment. The white attracts a better price than the violet.”

In 2017 the average price for a kilo of asparagus, irrespective of colour, was €8.38 and it remains expensive.

Preparation and cooking

To buy the asparagus in the best condition, Asperges de France advise that the most tender spears are the largest and that you should pick out the ones where the tip is firm. They can be conserved for up to three or four days at the bottom of the fridge. They can also be frozen, once they have been blanched for three minutes in boiling water.

To prepare, you can peel white and violet asparagus from the base of the tip towards the root with a vegetable peeler but green asparagus is never peeled.

The most common methods of cooking are in water or steam. White and violet asparagus should be put into cold water and brought up to the boil, while green should only be put in when the water is already boiling.

All three should then be cooked for 15 to 22 minutes and the tenderness of the tips can be tested with a knife.

The best way, according to Asperges de France, is to cook them in a pan with a lid, standing up with the tips just proud of the water so they cook in steam.

There are asparagus cookers, specially designed for this task. Cooking time in a steamer varies from 12 to 18 minutes depending on size. Asparagus can also be cooked in the oven or on a plancha.

Asparagus festivals

In April and May there are asparagus festivals throughout France. One of these is at Blaye in the Gironde (April 28-29)where the Blayais asparagus is grown in sandy, rich soil on the edge of the Garonne Estuary. You can buy asparagus and other local products, visit a farm, watch cookery workshops and taste this vegetable in all its forms, including in a giant omelette.

There are, amongst others, festivals at Payrignac in the Lot, Pontonx-sur-l’Adour in the Landes (May 1), Tigy, Loiret (May 18-19), and Hœrdt in the Bas-Rhin (May 13).

RECIPE: Green Asparagus, chicken and grilled almonds

Serves 4

800g green asparagus

600g chicken strips

4 tbsp soya sauce

2 garlic cloves

1 pinch salt

2 tbsp olive oil

30g grilled flaked almonds

1. Slice the chicken strips into long, fine strips. Add to a bowl containing the oil, salt and crushed garlic and mix well together. Cover with film and put in the fridge to marinate for 30 minutes.

2. Rinse the asparagus and cut off the base. Slice the stalks but keep the
heads whole.

3. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan and add the asparagus. Cook them for ten minutes, stirring regularly with a wooden spoon so they are cooked evenly. 4. Add the marinated chicken and leave to cook for 5-8 minutes stirring frequently. Finally sprinkle over the grilled, flaked almonds and serve.