Asparagus is food of the goddesses. It has been appreciated by exalted members of society beginning in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Then, asparagus was a wild and slender plant with a somewhat bitter taste; the Romans tinkered with varietals to fatten it up and soften it down.
In France in the 13th Century
It is said that the cultivation of asparagus in France began around the 13th century and Argenteuil, outside Paris, became the heart of asparagus cultivation. During the Renaissance, that distinction was given to the Loire Valley, which is still considered the true home of asparagus cultivation.
Vegetable of Kings
Asparagus was always the vegetable of kings, and Louis XIV insisted it be grown by his gardener, Jean Baptiste la Quintinie. Then, the asparagus of choice was white and it was always eaten with the fingers, stalk by fat white stalk. While it is naturally a spring vegetable, when you are the Sun King you get what you want when you want it ,and la Quintinie was ordered to have it ripe and ready for Christmas each year.
White is Classiest Asparagus
In France there are three versions of asparagus available at the market, usually from mid-April through June. White is considered the classiest, and it is the most familiar. It is grown underground until the day it is ripe; the grower checks its progress by sweeping the soil away from the mounds where it grows and if the head is developed, the word goes out . Knife-wielding harvesters come running., for asparagus is harvested stalk by individual stalk. To keep it from being exposed to light, it is carefully placed in wooden crates lined by a special light-resistant paper called “bleu cristallose” which ensures it stays white all the way to market.
Purple asparagus is white asparagus that has poked its head up from the soil just long enough for its tip to be kissed by color.
Green asparagus grows above ground, absorbing as much light as it can. More robust in flavor than the other versions, it lacks their pleasant bitterness, yet makes up for it with tender sweetness.
No Peeling for Green
White and purple asparagus must be peeled, for the skin is tough and inedible. To ensure tenderness, I always peel each stalk twice, beginning right under the head. Green asparagus can be peeled, but to do so is unfortunate for the skin is perfectly tender, and flavorful. It must, on the other hand, be separated from its tough root end. The best way to do this is to take the tip in your left hand, the root end in your right and bend. Where the asparagus cracks is where the tender separates from the tough. The tough can be cooked for a long time, then strained for a flavorful soup.
Less Cooking is More
Once trimmed, the true adage for cooking asparagus is “less is more” until it is tender, but not mushy. Seaming or braising are ideal cooking methods for all versions; only green asparagus is delicious raw.
Plain, Painted with Oil…and More
Once cooked, asparagus can be eaten plain, painted with olive oil, dressed in Hollandaise or vinaigrette. It is still considered right to eat it with the fingers, but only if it is served in a linen napkin set on a silver plate!