White asparagus—a treasured delicacy that stars in two upcoming festivals—trumps green asparagus any day of the week.
By David Feige
In late May every year, in the small Italian town of Bassano del Grappa in Veneto, white-asparagus farmers take to the streets, selling their crop alongside salty soft-boiled eggs and olive oil. And springtime in Bavaria wouldn't be complete without a plate of Spargel (as it's known in German) at one of the local restaurants celebrating the arrival of Bavaria's white asparagus crop. Closer to home, the Monday after Mother's Day marks the beginning of the White Asparagus Festival at the Andover Inn in Andover, Mass.
"We go through about 800 pounds every season," Henry Broekhoff, the innkeeper of the Andover Inn, announces proudly. For almost six weeks, Broekhoff, who flies his asparagus in fresh from the Netherlands, provides diners with a regular menu and an entire alternative menu devoted exclusively to white asparagus.
Generally more tender, often slightly bitter, and certainly more expensive than green asparagus, white asparagus, a treasured delicacy in Europe, is rarely served in the United States. "Americans are often suspicious when they see white asparagus," George Lang, the renowned chef of New York's Café des Artistes, explains. As a result, even when it's in season it can be hard to find. White asparagus, though, is worth the hunt.
As it turns out, white asparagus is like green asparagus with seasonal affective disorder. That is, it's regular asparagus that's been denied access to sunlight. As a result, there's no chlorophyll in it—which, of course, makes it white—or, more precisely, prevents it from turning green. And for some reason the absence of chlorophyll sends the yummy factor through the roof.
The spears are delicate and translucent and unbelievably delicious. They're cultivated (in the old-fashioned tradition) by mounding up soil around the emerging spears so that as they grow—seeking the sunlight above—they continue to encounter nothing but more darkness and dirt. Another method, often used by the Belgians, is to force the spears in a damp basement. However it's done, though, the asparagus's rather Sisyphean struggle for sunlight produces some mighty tasty results.
"I love asparagus!" Lang exclaims as he leans back in his studded leather swivel chair, glancing lovingly at the asparagus pictures, pitchers, plates, and candles that fill the shelves near his thin wooden desk. "I couldn't live without it!"
Lang, an animated little man, smiles brightly as he paces an office filled with cookbooks: The Book of Soba ,Monks and Wine ,How to Cook Everything . Lang's Café des Artistes celebrates springtime with an entire asparagus menu. And among the dozens of asparagus varietals Lang has tried over the years, produced in far-flung countries from China to Peru, his personal favorite is white, and it comes from Schwetzingen (near Heidelberg) in Germany.
The Schwetzingen Spargel has pale, thick alabaster stalks, and though it's served in a variety of ways in local restaurants, Lang, given a choice, takes his steamed Schwetzingen Spargel au naturel. For such a vegetable, he says, "no glorification is necessary."
Broekhoff disagrees. "For a Dutchman, there is only one way to eat white asparagus," he declares: steamed, with boiled potatoes (without the skin, of course), achterham (a tender Dutch ham from the rump rather than the shoulder), chopped hard-boiled eggs, and drawn butter. So if in May you visit Veneto or Schwetzingen, or just go Dutch, be sure not to miss this tender vegetable delicacy. Because no matter how you slice it, steam it, or sauté it, white asparagus is worth a try.