Dear Readers, I am always excited when I see the first English asparagus on sale at Tony’s Continental on East Finchley High Street. There is usually some asparagus in the shop, but I would rather feast from spring to midsummer on the English stuff than have Peruvian asparagus all year round. Much like the Seville oranges, asparagus is a real seasonal treat and doesn’t taste the same to me at any other time of year. But what exactly is it? What is it related to? And how long has it been a treat?
Firstly, asparagus belongs to a genus of 300 varied species. Some are climbers, some are drought-adapted thorny species with tubers which store water. To my surprise, the asparagus ‘fern’ (Asparagus setaceus) is actually closely related to edible asparagus – often plants are named because of a superficial resemblance, but in this case the name has a scientific basis. Edible asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) probably has a native range from western temperate Asia through to western Europe. It was grown as a vegetable from at least 3000 BC, when it appeared in a frieze in an Egyptian tomb, and was mentioned by the Roman chef Apicius in the first ever cookbook, written in 300 BC. It was grown in Norman monasteries, but was first mentioned in the UK in 1538, arriving in the New World as late as 1850. The world has taken to it with great gusto, however, and it now features in cuisines all over the planet. China is by far the major producer,
You can see the similarity when compared with the delicate foliage of the ‘domesticated’ plant, here left to go to seed.
Edible asparagus, in its wild form, was probably a coastal plant – it can certainly grow in soils too salty for other plants, and one way of preparing asparagus beds historically was to suppress the weeds with salt. This did mean that you were stuck with growing asparagus forever in that site, however. The soil needs to be well-drained and also fertile, a tricky combination to achieve. Furthermore, only the young shoots are edible – asparagus quickly becomes woody. When I was working in the Netherlands I noticed how much they preferred white asparagus – this is the same plant but the shoots are ‘earthed up’ as they develop, so that they don’t have access to light and so don’t photosynthesize. My colleagues said that the resulting vegetable was much more delicate in taste, but I always found the white stuff a bit too squishy, preferring the subtle toothsomeness of the green shoots. Each to their own, of course.
Asparagus is a favourite regional crop in many places. In the UK the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire is an asparagus hotspot, and hosts a music festival called ‘Asparafest’ every year. In the US, the city of Stockton in California holds an annual asparagus festival. In Germany, many cities hold celebrations to herald the arrival of white asparagus: those in Bavaria involve lots of beer, naturally, but the city of Berlin’s festival featured the uncontested world record for asparagus peeling by television chef Helmut Zipner, who peeled an entire tonne of asparagus in 16 hours. This earned him the title of ‘Asparagus Tarzan’.
The eating of asparagus has long been thought to have two major effects. It was long said to be an aphrodisiac, probably because of the shoots’ phallic appearance (if you don’t look too closely) and the fact that they arrive in the spring, when all of nature’s thoughts turn to getting jiggy with it. Madame de Pompadour apparently feasted on them, calling them ‘points d’amour’.
However, I would like to concentrate here on asparagus’s historical medicinal qualities. It has long thought to be a diuretic, and to be a useful treatment for urinary disorders, but I wonder how much of this is due to the almost magical way in which asparagus changes the smell of urine? Within 30 minutes of eating the stuff you can tell that you’ve been eating the vegetable, and the effect lasts for up to four hours. I can think of few other foodstuffs that change the smell of one’s bodily secretions so quickly: eating some spices will change the smell of sweat, for example, but not so instantaneously.
The change is brought about by the breakdown of a compound called asparagusic acid. For a long time, it was thought that not everyone’s urine changed in aroma, but it has been proved that actually what happens is that some people are genetically less able to perceive the smell. This reminds me of the way that 10% of the population are unable to detect the scent of freesias, though this seems to me rather sadder than not being able to notice the way that asparagus changes the smell of pee.There a multitude of recipes available for using asparagus, but it is possible to go over the top. I once had an asparagus tasting menu in a five-star hotel in Bucharest that featured asparagus icecream with candied asparagus for dessert. Should you fancy repeating the experience, the Farmers Almanac website has asparagus bundt cake and asparagus icecream here. Do let me know how you get on.
Asparagus’s alternative name is ‘sparrow grass’, which I rather like. In Turkey, it’s called kuşkonmaz which literally means ‘a bird won’t land on it’, referring to the awkward shape of the plant.
Finally, here is a story that combines art and poetry, two of my favourite things. The poem, by Tom Pow, tells the tale much better than I can.
In his final years, illness attended
the artist. His friends brought him flowers
and, in modest works, when free from pain,
he gave them his fullest attention. Each
became a study in concentration
and in the memory of paint: testament
to the moment. One instinctive still life
of that period is of a fat bundle
of asparagus, each stalk fleshily
overfed, ready for the kitchen.
The purchaser paid over the odds,
so Manet, in recompense, sent him
a small oil painting of a single stalk.
‘There was one missing from your bunch.’
Its body, pearly-grey as the belly
of a fish, lies inert on the marble top.
But its purplish tip curves gently up
in the way that a fish, brought to land,
will raise its head and gawp for life
though there is nothing that can save it.
Photo One by (c)2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Location credit to the Chanticleer Garden. – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1191941
Photo Two by By SriMesh – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4880679
Photo Three by Muffet [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]