It sounds really pretentious, but for the past couple of days we have been having white asparagus for dinner. And it looks like tonight will be a repeat.
White asparagus – this most sought-after, luxurious, expensive and refined vegetable is currently everywhere in our corner of Italy. That is because it is in season and, as luck would have it, it is grown locally. About 30 minutes drive outside of Vicenza there are white asparagus fields galore and it is extremely easy to get hold of their fresh produce.
Supermarkets and small greengrocers sell thick bunches of white asparagus spears which at the start of the season cost an eye-watering 12 euros per kilo of premium quality, but have now gone down to a slightly more palatable 6-7 euros. The slightly bent, short and not perfectly beautiful spears are even cheaper.
We had gotten into the habit of buying green asparagus whilst we were still living in the UK. Kent – the county where we had moved to from London – has a number of farms specialised in green asparagus cultivation. So come spring, we would go for long drives to nearby towns and castles and would stop off at the small shops attached to these farms where a bunch of locally grown green asparagus would be about 3 pounds (in British money, not weight-wise).
During the rest of the year we would buy small packs of perfectly trimmed and presented green asparagus spears from the large chain supermarkets which would flow them in all the way from Mexico. Initially, it felt totally strange to eat something which had traveled across half of the world to land on our not so refined table, but the thing is that in Britain you get really used to having all types of fruit and vegetables at your disposal all through the year and the thought of food miles is soon obliterated by the appeal of convenience.
Not so much in Italy, where both supermarkets and small shops stock just what’s in season and the produce most of the cases is locally grown or travels as little as possible. As such, last spring we were walking around Padua – a lovely city where we were spending a relaxed day – when we came across the local market (held at the same place for the past 800 years!!!) and the stalls were groaning under the weight of big bunches of green and white asparagus.
Now, white asparagus was a new thing to us. I had never tasted it before, so was eager to try it. The difference between white and green asparagus is that the white one is grown underground.
In other words, the spears are covered with soil, so that they don’t get exposed to direct sunlight and hence grow a ghostly pale shade with some pink undertones, unable to develop chrolophyll – the pigment which gives the green asparagus its colour. This type of growing technique has been used to cultivate white asparagus in Italy for the past 500 years and the centre of its production is a picturesque town called Bassano del Grappa which is really close to our current hometown of Vicenza (scroll down to point 8 in this article, if you want to read more about Bassano).
So, this year, upon my return from Bulgaria and as I was picking some fruit and veg at our local greengrocer’s, I came across a huge crate with lovely bunches of white asparagus all carefully held together by two elastic bands and a large label attached proudly exclaiming ‘Grown in Italy’.
Hop! And the nicest bunch jumped straight into my basket.
I cooked the spears the simplest way possible by half-boiling/half-steaming them in a tall pan. Right before leaving for Bulgaria I saw in the large supermarket, where we do our weekly shop, a huge seasonal display dedicated to asparagus and cooking it. The thing which caught my eye was a tall metal mesh basket in which you are supposed to insert the spears and then lower the basket in the pan with boiling water.
I am not really a sophisticated cook and, to be honest, I am the marketing anti-dream, as I hate having kitchen gadgets which are only useful for one particular thing. Sorry! I like multipurpose and multifunctional things, but if you want to boil/steam asparagus the proper way, definitely get yourself one of these baskets. They did look really fetching.
Instead, this is what I did. I trimmed about two centimeters off the end of each spear. Yes, it felt wrong getting rid of so much, considering the price, but the asparagus ends are really tough and chewy and not really tasty, so they needed to go.
Then, using a vegetable peeler I peeled the spears one by one (leaving the tip of the spear untouched). This was quite a fiddly work, as the peelings produced were very thin and curly and got caught in the peeler and every now and then I had to stop and unclog it. It is definitely easier to peel potatoes and carrots, but, hey, we are talking white asparagus here, so grin and bear it for the finesse of it all. Or, that’s what I told myself.
With each peeling movement exerted over their delicate bodies, the white asparagus spears seemed to release this sticky juice, so my fingers and palms were soon sticking to the peeler’s handle. It was not entirely unpleasant, just something I didn’t expect (yep, definitely different from peeling potatoes and carrots, I told you!).
Then I washed the spears thoroughly. And placed them in a tall pan. And here is the caveat. I didn’t have anything to tie the spears in a bunch with. Proper cooking technique dictates that they need to be placed in the pan with water standing upright, so that their tips don’t touch the water. So, people (that means proper chefs) tie them in a bunch and then pierce the bunch with two crossed wooden sticks which then help keep the bunch upright in the wet atmosphere of boiling water and condensation which drips back on top of the asparagus from the lid of the pan.
I didn’t have proper ties, nor did I have proper wooden sticks. I briefly considered using some wooden chop sticks, but in the end decided to make things simple for myself. I couldn’t use a big pan, as the spears would have simply floated in the water and boiled instead of being both boiled and steamed. I couldn’t use a small pan, as the spears wouldn’t fit in it upright.
So, after some thought, I fished my mussel pot out of the cupboard. Yes, I hate having cooking implements which only serve one purpose. So, the mussel pot, being quite narrow and yet quite tall, was elevated to white asparagus pot. Success!
I did a little test. The spears stood sort of upright in it. They tilted to one side, but still didn’t fall down. The deep lid provided enough space for good condensation to develop and I was good to go.
I filled the mussel.. oops, sorry, the white asparagus pot half way with water, salted the water, placed the spears in it, put the lid on top and cranked the gas.
Soon a lovely aroma started sifting through the kitchen. Half an hour of boiling later, the spears were ready. I lifted them off the water, let them drain away for a moment and then placed them on top of a dish with a couple of knobs of butter. Apparently, there are special asparagus dishes, but I am afraid I don’t have one.
Then, feeling the culinary goddess that I am, I served the white asparagus as a side dish to whatever simple dinner we had the last couple of days.
White asparagus is very tasty. Especially when you bite the top of the spear off. It is really soft and melting on the tongue filling the mouth with the most unexpected strong flavour.
If you are in Italy during asparagus season, definitely give it a try.