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Asparagus

Already popular in ancient times, for centuries asparagus was seen as an exceptional dish reserved for the aristocracy or for feast days. The green or white colour depends on the growing method used. Cultivation is complicated and limited to a short season, especially for white asparagus. This delicate vegetable should be consumed as soon as possible after harvest.
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© Shutterstock / Africa Studio - Harvesting green asparagus

A refined vegetable for special occasions

Asparagus grows in the wild throughout the Mediterranean region, possibly on its native land. It was prized during Antiquity and harvested by the Egyptians and the Greeks. The Romans even began to cultivate it near Ravenna. However, it then seems to have been forgotten for several centuries.

It reappeared in Italy during the Renaissance and began to be cultivated throughout Europe. Asparagus, an exceptional springtime vegetable, was only available for a short time every year and was favoured by the aristocracy to feature in celebratory meals. Louis XIV loved it so much that he wanted it in December, so his gardener, La Quintinie, developed techniques for growing it under cover at Versailles. Asparagus was valued for both its diuretic and aphrodisiac qualities.

Although its cultivation continued to expand from the 17th century onwards, asparagus remained an expensive vegetable in the 19th century, served with roast lamb or chicken at elegant bourgeois dinners. Thanks to the discovery of preserving vegetables in jars, restaurant owners prided themselves on offering this vegetable all year long. Today, asparagus is still valued as a delicacy and is included in many gourmet recipes.

Different production techniques for white and green asparagus

Asparagus belongs to the Liliaceae family, alongside garlic, onions, chives and leeks. The plant has an underground stem, referred to as the crown. In the spring, the crown produces shoots, called spears, which break through the surface of the soil in search of light. These shoots end in a bud, the edible tip, which changes colour in the open air, turning pink then purple before becoming green.

The difference between green and white asparagus lies in the way the plant is cultivated, although nowadays there are specific varieties for both sorts. White asparagus is covered with earth to keep it away from light. Once it has reached maturity, it is extracted with a long semi-cylindrical knife. When asparagus is grown in flat beds, the shoots are not covered with earth so they soon reach the light and turn green.
 

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© Shutterstock / Martien van Gaalen - Cultivating white asparagus


Asparagus is harvested over approximately two months, from March to early June, depending on the region and variety. It is harvested by hand, which accounts for a significant part of the production costs.

White asparagus is mostly cultivated in Europe, whereas green asparagus is predominant in the rest of the world. However, cultivation of green asparagus has increased and found its way onto European soil too, thanks to lower production costs as it is less labour-intensive to grow.

A delicate vegetable that should be delivered quickly

Once harvested, asparagus must be kept away from heat and dry air or it becomes tough and quickly loses its crunchy texture. It is therefore best eaten as soon as possible after harvesting. This fragility explains why asparagus imported from overseas, for example from Peru to the US, is sent by plane rather than by cargo ship.

Nutrition

Thanks to its health benefits, asparagus features in the customary spring ‘detox’ diet. It is low calorie, diuretic and rich in fibre and in vitamins A and B. Green asparagus tips are particularly rich in vitamin C.

Asparagus for a touch of elegance

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© Shutterstock / iceink - Asparagus officinalis


If asparagus (asparagus officinalis) is not harvested but left to grow, the shoots turn green and grow a branching, decorative stem. Florists use different varieties, especially asparagus plumosus.