White asparagus, a labour of love
On visiting my local German deli, I saw a makeshift sign announcing the arrival white asparagus. I was intrigued; is this the asparagus version of the arrival of Beaujolais nouveau? Is there a special spring festival in which it is traditional to eat white asparagus? Perhaps it is simply the season for white asparagus and the sign is celebrating the fresh imports of these distinctive spears. This would explain the ‘specials’ menu of – exclusively – white asparagus dishes at Steins in Kingston, Surrey, where we ate in early May.
White asparagus is a ‘continental’ thing – or more particularly, German. Whilst we proudly laud our indigenous green crops of British asparagus, we appear oblivious to the fact that across the channel they much prefer the white (known as ‘spargel’ in Germany). If green asparagus was not difficult enough to grow, white asparagus adds several new layers of complexity. The basic plant is the same, but the horticultural process is very different. It involves the incredibly arduous task of burying the spears in tall furrows of earth – surely the greatest labour of love for a vegetable. And it’s all done for the sake of a white stalk. The asparagus are denied sunlight, which prevents photosynthesis (and the formation of chlorophyll) so the stalks remain white. Over 2,000 farmers cultivate and form their long furrows of asparagus across 50,000 acres of German farmland. During the short eight week period in which asparagus is harvested (April to June), thousands of temporary workers, diligently and carefully release the thick white stalks from their entombment. With the use of such intense labour, it’s understandable that white asparagus so expensive. Even so, Germans consume 70,000 tons of white asparagus each year.
So, is the white worth its salt? Definitely. It tastes like asparagus but with a more refined and delicate flavour. Somehow, the additional substance of a thicker spear gives what is already a prestigious vegetable an extra level of status.