White asparagus seems to divide opinion much like the proverbial Marmite (you love it or you hate it). While some dismiss it as tasteless and uninteresting, others revere it as something luxurious and very special. My first memory of it puts me in the former group: horrid, slimy white asparagus in tins, as I sampled in my childhood. Jump forward a few decades and you’ll find me in Italy. We were staying near Lucca and took a trip to Montecatini Terme one day (in the Florence direction). We decided on lunch in nearby Pescia, which is famous for its asparagus. We ate at a restaurant called Cecco and, to this day, I have to say this experience of eating asparagus is one of the – slightly weird – highlights of my eating life, even though it was about 20 years ago.
The eating of the asparagus was almost a religious ritual. In my memory we were surrounded by waiters. Big white plates, sat at an angle so that melted butter dropped into a small ‘bath’, ready to dip the asparagus into, were put before us. The asparagus arrived with a silent fanfare; they didn’t actually play trumpets but the importance of the moment was implicit in the action of the waiters. It might have all been a joke but fortunately we didn’t laugh. We gave it all the respect that was due. And my goodness! The asparagus was magnificent. Whenever I see white asparagus, I think of that lunch.
Thus I had a momentary visit to Italy while actually in Turnham Green, Chiswick, West London today. I was filling in time before seeing my lovely osteopath, Alex. The parade of shops near Turnham Green station is full of trendy food shops, cafés and expensive (but fatally tempting when you have three little grandsons) children’s clothes and toy shops. And there I found Natoora – a wonderful, completely amazing greengrocer. Outside lay bunches of green, purple – and white! asparagus. There were also Sicilian blood oranges, still with their leaves on. Inside I found small Roman artichokes, Treviso and Tardivo radicchio and a marvel of other exciting things. Working with small scale farmers, Natoora sources seasonal produce which has been sustainably grown. I really must go back when I have more time. Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist a bunch of white asparagus (despite its high price – £5.99 for 4 stems), a couple of Sicilian oranges and a packet of Bayonne ham.
White asparagus is grown underground so that it doesn’t produce the chlorophyll which makes it green. In season from April until June, the best comes from the Netherlands, Spain, France and Germany. It is particularly prized in Germany. In Italy it’s grown in the north, especially around Vincenza. The stalks are usually picked when quite thick (or that’s how I’ve always seen it) and the taste is sweeter than green, with a hint of bitterness.
The tough, bitter peel must be removed before cooking. You can cook it in salted boiling water; sometimes it’s cooked in a light stock. But my preferred method of cooking asparagus is steaming, and I decided to stick with that. Serving it with ham is popular, particularly in Germany, with sometimes just plain melted butter, or perhaps a vinaigrette, but also popular is hollandaise.
In the end I took a French route. Not so much by any kind of planning (well I hadn’t planned on white asparagus for supper tonight; that was wonderful serendipity at work). The white asparagus came from France; Bayonne – and its ham – is in SW France and hollandaise is one of the 5 mother sauces of French cuisine (the others are Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole and Sauce Tomat).
I served it with a simple green salad on the side and some fresh sourdough bread.
White Asparagus with Bayonne ham, Hollandaise & Chives – Serves 1
- Hollandaise sauce (see below)
- 1 bunch of white asparagus (about 4-5 spears)
- sea salt
- slices of Bayonne ham
- 1 tablespoons freshly chopped chives
Make the Hollandaise sauce (see this previous recipe for instructions: click here). Then cook the asparagus.
The best way to remove the woody ends of asparagus is to hold the asparagus near the end and gently break. They’ll break at just the right point. Use a potato peeler to peel off the tough peel of the asparagus. Place in a steamer over boiling water. Sprinkle over a little sea salt. Pop the lid on the steamer and steam for 5-10 minutes. Check with a very sharp small knife for tenderness. You don’t want them soft but with a nice al dente bite still.
I had some chives in my garden; nearing flowering with little purple buds on the top on some. Chop quite finely to get about a tablespoon.
Lay the cooked asparagus on a serving plate. Then lay slices of Bayonne ham (or other good cured ham, like Prosciutto or Serrano) alongside the asparagus.
Spoon the prepared hollandaise over the asparagus and sprinkle over the chives. All done! It takes very little time; even the hollandaise is quickly and easily prepared.
So where did I stand in the white asparagus debate now? Firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. It was gorgeous. I’d cooked it until it was still firm but cooked through. The flavour was actually quite strong, but nicely so. I really liked it. The ham and Hollandaise were perfect accompaniments. You could in all honesty make the dish with any asparagus. I’m rather keen to try the purple but the more commonly found green is fine too. One of the lovely things about asparagus is that, unlike so many vegetables now, they do pretty much keep to their season. And I like that. It makes it all the more special to be able to find and enjoy this treat for just three months of the year.