Ancient royalty seemed fascinated with asparagus. With Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus was said to have organized elite military units to search out this vegetable. He would then locate the fastest runners to take the fresh asparagus spears into the frozen Alps for storage purposes. Ancient Greeks, meanwhile, harvested wild asparagus and connected this vegetable to their goddess of love, Aphrodite – and numerous other cultures have also considered freshly sprouted asparagus a symbol of fertility.
In the area of Ancient Greece known as Boeotia, “after veiling the bride, they put on her head a chaplet of asparagus; for this plant yields the finest flavoured fruit from the roughest thorns, and so the bride will provide for him who does not run away or feel annoyed at her first display of peevishness and unpleasantness a docile and sweet life together.”
The asparagus plant appeared in an Egyptian frieze about five thousand years ago, with Queen Nefertiti allegedly an asparagus fan. Archaeologists found traces of asparagus on dishware when excavating the Pyramid of Sakkara, along with other coveted foods such as figs and melons. In this culture, this vegetable was considered sacred, used in religious ceremonies.
In Ancient China, honored guests were treated, upon their arrivals, with an asparagus footbath. About 2,000 years ago, a poet named Apuleius fell in love with a wealthy widow named Pudentilla. Knowing he needed to pull out all the stops, he wooed her with a special dish that contained asparagus, along with crab tails, fish eggs, bird’s tongue and dove blood. He was accused of using magic charms to win her heart. Although he successfully defended himself, there certainly is something magical about asparagus!
When the Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) of the powerful Habsburg Empire decided to visit Rome without warning anyone of his arrival, a sense of panic ensued because the emperor had arrived during a time of fasting. One clever cardinal set cooks to work creating three different asparagus recipes. They set the plates on perfumed cloths and offered the emperor three exquisite wines – and he was said to praise the delicacies he was offered for years to come.
French monasteries included this plant in their gardens 600 years ago – and, if you wanted to please the Sun King, Louis XIV, you could bring his second wife, Madame de Maintenon, a new asparagus recipe. She gathered them into a book and asparagus soup a la Maintenon is still prized today.
For centuries, people have included asparagus in their Easter dinners because its fast growth in the spring symbolizes resurrection. If you’re interested in reading more about the history of the alluring asparagus, much of the information shared in this post can be found in A Curious History of Vegetables by Wolf D. Storl, along with numerous other asparagus anecdotes to enjoy.
The book also contains this quote by modern-day plant expert Fritz-Martin Engel, one that effectively sums up the types of people who have appreciated asparagus over the centuries: “Pharaohs, emperors, kings, generals, and great spiritual leaders, princely poets such as Goethe and gourmands like Brillat-Savarin -- all of them ate and eat asparagus with great enthusiasm."
Fresh asparagus continues to appear in menus and in homes around the world in creative and delicious ways. So, what’s the explanation for this long-lasting appeal?
“Well,” Farmer Lee Jones says, “since my family has sustainably grown fresh vegetables – maybe not for centuries, mind you, but at least for decades – I have a few insights to share. They include my belief that you should celebrate the season by eating fresh asparagus three times a day. It will taste even better if, during the off-season months, you simply lust for it.”
Eating fresh asparagus three times a day can be quite an adventure – and here are just a few ways you can enjoy this marvelous vegetable. You can:
If you decide to pickle your asparagus, use a nice, light touch. Hold back being too aggressive with the process. You can also create a lovely asparagus sorbet or custard – or, as Executive Chef Jamie Simpson from the Culinary Vegetable Institute did, you can make an incredible butter using ground asparagus. Place it in an asparagus-shaped mold and then dust the butter with more of the powder and it will look like an actual stalk. No matter how you decide to prepare your asparagus, keep cooking times short.
“Asparagus,” he reminds us, “is one of the first crops harvested during the spring season, which means it represents the transition from the frozen winter and its emphasis on root vegetables to the abundance and newness of spring. And, for farmers, asparagus can mean even more. The farmer is an eternal optimist, always hoping that next year will be THE year – the year when rain falls in exactly the right amounts at exactly the right times, that it’s never too hot and never too cold, and the weather is exactly what we might wish.
“No season is ever perfect, of course, but try telling that to a farmer as he or she sits in front of a cozy fireplace in the winter time, feet propped up, looking through seed catalogues and dreaming of spring. Winter refreshes us, and asparagus represents the hope of renewal and the optimism of what spring might bring. When it’s time to begin harvesting asparagus, farmers smell the earth again, see the earthworms and listen once again to the killdeer and blackbirds.”
“This portent of spring is a welcome celebration. Asparagus is a recurrent affirmation that winter is over, and delicious treasures from the field are imminent.” (Culinary Vegetable Institute)
Asparagus is a patient vegetable. It rests quietly underground, absorbing nutrients from the soil, remaining underground during the freezing winter (can you blame it?) before beginning to push through the soil towards the warmth of the spring sun, signaling the start of the season.
In 1956, the New York Times published an article calling asparagus the “spring tonic for weary appetites.” Nutrient-rich while low in calories, asparagus truly is a healthful spring tonic. It really can grow quite fast, too. From a harvesting standpoint, it can feel as though you could just sit in a chair and watch it grow. You can cut asparagus in the morning and it just keeps coming.
Although green asparagus is what’s typically seen in grocery stores, it also comes in beautiful shades of purple and pink, as well as white. And, no matter what color it is, it’s important to protect the strength of the root. Here’s how gentle we need to be. First, we plant three-year-old roots. If that asparagus root is in its first year in growth (really its fourth!), you should only pick it for one week because you don’t want to zap root strength. After two years (really its fifth!), pick for only two weeks. By the time it’s four years old (yep, year seven), then you can harvest it for longer amounts of time. A good plant can last up to twenty years, so it’s important to let young ones build up strength for the future.
In Europe, chefs almost always use white asparagus, rarely green. Because white asparagus beautifully offers up luscious notes of corn and sweet cabbage, we fully appreciate their love of this marvelous vegetable. European farmers mound soil over the asparagus plants to block the chlorophyll process, which creates the white color. But, these plants need to push hard through the soil and end up with tough outer skins that need peeled off. This adds labor (expenses and time) to the mix, and then the most nutritious part of the vegetable is thrown away.
Our chefs can choose from green, white, purple or pink asparagus, each with the amazing flavor that reminds us all of springtime – and each so tender that you can skip the peeling process altogether.
More About the Nutrition in Vegetable Peels
To demonstrate the nutrition, Farmer Lee Jones likes to share an apocryphal story, one involving a farmer who was very worried about his sick mother. “Doc,” he pleaded with the town doctor, “Ma is so sick that she’s stopped doing any farm chores, even cooking. You’ve got to help us.”
The doctor agreed and, as soon as he could, he hurried to the farm in his horse and buggy. Pounding on the door of the farmhouse, he only had a few seconds to observe a bucket full of potato peels by the front door before rushing in to see his patient. He did what he could to help Ma get better as quickly as possible. As he was leaving, though, he asked the farmer about the bucket of potato peels.
“Oh, those,” the farmer replied. “After we prepare our dinner, we throw the potato peels in the bucket and feed them to the hogs.”
“Well,” the doctor said in return. “That’s part of your problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re feeding your hogs,” the wise doctor said, “better than you’re feeling your own mother.”
Vegetable peels. They are chock full of nutrition. Here is what Berkeley University has to say about the nutritional value of the peels of fruits and vegetables. And, thanks to the gentle and sustainable way we grow our asparagus, your diners will benefit.
Health.com lists numerous health benefits of this lovely vegetable, including (but not limited!) to these:
And these are just some of the health benefits of asparagus listed in the article!
Besides the range of colors of fresh asparagus, this wonderful spring vegetable also comes in a range of sizes, from half the thickness of a number two pencil to as big as your thumb (and wonderful sizes in between).
To provide our chefs with what they need, we harvest the asparagus, which grows in the thicknesses intended by Mother Nature – and then we sort them, offering them in just the right sizes for chefs’ creative applications.
Much as we love winter root vegetables with their hearty flavors, we admit to longing for spring, for eagerly waiting to harvest that first incredible asparagus plant that signifies the new season. How about you?
In season, you can choose from:
These varieties are available in a rainbow of sizes. How can a product specialist help you today?