Wednesday, 13 May 2009

White Asparagus in Aquitaine

Les Landes and Blayais are renowned for their white asparagus which flourishes in the sandy soil there. The two varieties grown are the Sable des Landes Asparagus (Sabline) and the Reine Blanche du Blayais.
White asparagus is considered to be slightly milder in flavour and a bit more tender than green asparagus. The colouring of asparagus depends on the length of its exposure to the sun. Asparagus has a leaf bud which lengthens underground searching for light, and becomes coloured when it is exposed to it. This is why the producer has a real race against the clock to obtain beautifully fleshy white asparagus – it's labour intensive and this explains its high price.

Asparagus has been used from very early times as a vegetable and medicine, owing to its delicate flavour and medicinal properties. A syrup of asparagus is still employed medicinally in France: and at Aix-les-Bains it forms part of the cure for rheumatic patients to eat Asparagus. The name Asparagus is derived from a Greek word signifying the tearer, in allusion to the spikes; or perhaps from the Persian spurgas, a shoot.

There is a recipe for cooking asparagus in the oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius' 3rd century De Re Coquinaria. So prized were these perennial shoots by the Romans that not only did they enjoy eating them in season but they were also the first to preserve it by freezing as early as the 1st Century AD when fast chariots would take the fresh asparagus from the Tiber River area to the Alps where it kept for six months until the Feast of Epicurus. The Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus coined the phrase 'velocius quam asparagi conquantur', meaning to do something faster than you can cook asparagus.

The Romans are responsible for having introduced asparagus to England, where it gradually gained favour with the nobles and by the early 16th century, it was widely served in many of the Royal courts of Europe. France's King Louis XIV even grew it in hothouses so he could enjoy it year-round. Near Narbonne asparagus used to be grown in between the rows of vines!

White asparagus has a shorter history. The technique of moulding earth around asparagus spears as they push up out of the ground, thus keeping them sheltered from chlorophyll-producing sunlight (which would turn them green), was apparently developed in France in the mid-1600s, and the practice soon spread to Germany and other parts of Europe.

Le Gratin d'Asperges (Asparagus in a Cheese Sauce)

1 ½ lb white (you can use green if white is unavailable) asparagus
2 oz butter
6 oz belly pork
1 pt béchamel sauce
2 oz grated cheese

Wash and cut the asparagus, keeping only the tender tips (you can use the stalks to flavour a soup). Heat half the butter in a frying pan and add the asparagus and pork. Add a pinch of the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cover, reduce the heat and leave to cook until the asparagus is soft.
Make the béchamel sauce and fold in the asparagus and pork. Tip this into a buttered gratin dish, cover the top with the grated cheese and dot with the remaining butter. Bake in a hot oven until the top is crispy and golden.

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