All steamed up about asparagus

Asparagus...stirring up lust in man and woman for centuries. (Photograph: Vegetablebuzz.com)

ASPARAGUS has long been a most venerated vegetable. It is thought to have originated in the Middle East – the Persian word “asparg” means sprout – and upper-class Greeks and Romans cultivated and consumed it from as early as the 1st century AD. In 1652, master English herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper wrote that it “stirs up lust in man and woman”. King Louis X1V built a greenhouse in the gardens of Versailles to ensure a year-round supply of the vegetable and French bridegrooms of the 19th century were served no less than three courses of the allegedly lascivious lily at prenuptial dinners. In China, asparagus roots are prescribed to increase feelings of compassion and love, while in parts of southern Russia the plant is so prolific that cattle and sheep – presumably a lusty, loving and compassionate lot – graze freely in fields of it.

Indeed, asparagus is an esteemed vegetable. Conversely, the upshot of eating the popular delicacy is much less splendid. So much so, that an antiquated signboard in a British gentlemen’s club has, since the Victorian era, purportedly appealed, “During the asparagus season, members are requested not to relieve themselves in the hat stand”. And, in a more contemporary reaction, the question “Why does asparagus make my urine smell?” is one of the most frequently posted food-related queries on the Internet.

Unfortunately though, it is one of those questions that are arguably more interesting in the asking than in the answer: It is generally understood that the stench-instigating compound of asparagus is methylmercaptan, a sulphur-containing derivative of the amino acid, methionine. This is disputed by some, who believe that the compound is asparagine-amino-succinic-acid monoamide that is derived from asparagine. Either way, the ponging product is formed – very quickly, too – as a derivative during the digestion and subsequent breakdown of amino acids that occur naturally in asparagus.

Happily, this dull explanation is, to some extent at least, rescued by a more interesting sidebar: Not everyone is able to detect the malodorous side effect of asparagus. “Non-perceivers”, as they are labelled, may excrete the odour but have an inherited inability to smell it. But wait, there’s more! Studies show that an even smaller percentage of people do not excrete the foul-smelling compound at all. They are “non-excretors”. And – hold your breath for this one – research continues into the possible existence of a fourth variation of the theme: that is, people who can neither sense the odour in others nor produce it themselves. In other words, a non-excreting, non-perceiver! Is it possible?

All right, with the less savoury – but apparently pressing – aspect of asparagus now dealt with, let’s consider its appeal.

For sure, the delicate and distinct flavours of asparagus have grand and universal appeal. It, particularly in its fresh green form, has become increasingly fashionable both locally and internationally in the past decade. This, says Sybrand Potgieter, who is the agricultural director of Ficksburg-based fresh asparagus producer, GP Asparagus, has been helped largely by the fact that the vegetable is frequently featured in trendy cookbooks and on the cookery pages of magazines. Also, its health benefits have been widely publicised and it enjoys “celebrity status” on a growing number of food channels on television.

Thankfully, gone are the days when asparagus appeared only as a de-canned and dubious treat in pallid and watery braai-time salads: “Nowadays,” says Potgieter, “South Africans want fresh green spears, and they are getting more and more creative in preparing them either by braai-ing, grilling, boiling, steaming, roasting, stir-frying or sauté-ing. Fresh green asparagus today appears in hors d’oeuvres, salads, risottos, soups, tarts, pizza, stir-fries and pasta dishes.”

Although imports (primarily from Peru, Mexico and China) ensure year-round availability, the best time to purchase asparagus is in season. In South Africa, the primary season is from September to November. During this time, asparagus – which yields for the first time in its third year of growth and lives productively for about 15 years – is harvested on farms in the Eastern Free State and Gauteng on a daily basis. It is an extremely labour intensive activity and everything – planting, weeding, cutting, sorting and packing – is done by hand. In the case of white spears – which are primarily used for canning in this country or exported to Europe – the additional task of mounding the soil over the crown of the plant is required. This ensures that no photosynthesis takes place and prevents the spears from turning green. The white spears – which are different only because they have been shielded from the sunlight – are cut at dawn as soon as they crack the surface.

Although many people believe white asparagus to be slightly milder in flavour and a bit more tender than green asparagus, Potgieter says there is little difference between the two: “It’s a cultural preference. Germans, in particular, like white asparagus. In many other countries though, including this one, people prefer the fresher look of the green spears.”

A secondary asparagus season takes place locally from December to April, when the spears are smaller and the plants, less prolific. Counter-intuitively, small, young-looking asparagus spears are often tougher than larger, plumper ones. The skin causes the toughness of asparagus and, the larger the body, the thinner the skin and the more tender the asparagus. So, when you shop for asparagus, choose plump, juicy spears. If the skin is furrowed or concave, it is possible that the asparagus has begun to dry out and is likely to be tougher and less flavourful.

Really fresh and healthy asparagus is so tasty that you do not need to do much with it. It is simple to work with but should be cooked quickly, just long enough to be easily pierced with a fork. Bundling asparagus and cooking it standing in a tall pot, with the crunchier ends in the boiling water and the tender heads steamed at the top of the pot, ensures even cooking and means that it can be quickly removed from the pot all at once. You can also steam it in the microwave but it is easy to spoil it by nuking it for too long.

Although the canned variety is largely considered passé, asparagus still makes regular appearances at braais, where fresh green spears – the fatter, the better – are skewered together, brushed with olive oil, seasoned and grilled over medium coals. Cooked like this, asparagus is delicious on its own, in a salad with rocket, goats’ cheese and roasted pine nut, or with shaved Parmesan and a lemon and mint butter dressing. Smoked meat, particularly ham and bacon, is also excellent with the vegetable.

(First published in the Food & Travel section of The Weekender in May 2007.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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