The perfect time to try the earthier, nuttier version of this familiar spring veg
“The most obvious difference is that it is white!” says Charlie from Turnips with a cheeky grin as he points to a display several boxes high of sleek white asparagus spears. The reason for the difference in colour is the way that they are grown. White asparagus is grown in a similar way to forced rhubarb, kept away from the light. “In some places it is grown under the ground in concrete tubes, and in others the earth is piled up over the rows so that nothing peaks through into the daylight before it is ready to be harvested.”
While it is still less familiar in the UK than its green cousin, white asparagus is highly prized on parts of the continent, and in some cases, is actually more popular than the green variety. “The Germans in particular really love it—if you talk to a German on the stall at this time of year they will ask about white asparagus, without fail. We have noticed that for years. But the French adore it as well—in fact some of the best white asparagus is grown in the Landes region of France,” he explains. “This is where they tend to use the concrete tubes.”
The reason for growing the asparagus underground is to avoid the process of photosynthesis, which plants use to convert sunlight into food. When grown in the dark, the plants do not produce the chlorophyll used in photosynthesis (which is what gives plants their green colour) as they don’t need to. The result is the pale vegetable so beloved across the Channel.
“Because it has less pigment, the flavour is far more delicate than that of green asparagus. It does not have that grassy flavour we are used to,” Charlie explains. “White asparagus has an earthier, nuttier flavour. The natural sugars of the plant are more prominent, too, so there is definitely a hint of sweetness there as well.”
A quick look will show that it is generally thicker than the green variety, and as a rule, it is a bit more fibrous. “You have to peel the whole bottom section of it, as opposed to just snapping it off—if you have a potato peeler, that works well. It means it is a bit more labour-intensive, but once you have finished it really is a beautiful product.”
If you are new to white asparagus Charlie has a couple of ideas to get you going that won’t have you spending a whole afternoon slaving over a hot stove. “The first is the simplest: steamed until it is tender and served on its own with a chervil sauce. The flavours just work really well together and it is actually my favourite way of eating them.”
Potatoes and hollandaise
But it also works well with other stronger flavours. “Try wrapping the cooked spears in serrano ham and pouring over butter sauce, or the Germans like it with potatoes and hollandaise. It is actually great with a bit of crispy bacon, too,” this food-loving grocer says with a smile.
Even though the season is longer than that of the green native variety, it is still fairly short. “White asparagus has been around for a couple of weeks, but it is really starting to come into its own right now so this is exactly the time to start buying it,” Charlie explains. “The season can run until about June, and we will have it through the season, but we only really feature it until the end of April when the British asparagus season kicks in.”
If you have ever been curious about white asparagus, this is the perfect time to dive in. Remember, the clock is ticking.