Louis XIV, no stranger to fine things, was so taken with asparagus that he dubbed it the king of all vegetables and commissioned special greenhouses to be built so that it could be cultivated throughout the year. While not as rigidly seasonal (or indeed quintessentially Catalan) as the calçot, fresh Spanish asparagus is available for only about three months from mid-March onwards, and its increasing popularity has boosted imports. The world’s largest producers of asparagus are China and Peru, and Spain buys huge quantities to satisfy demand during autumn and winter.
While the imported varieties are perfectly good substitutes, so many air miles inevitably take their toll, as much on the environment as the product itself. Fresh, locally produced asparagus may be a little harder to come by, but a search through the markets in the next few weeks is worth the trouble for those who want to make the most of the season.
Cultivation is shared between a number of regions and is determined largely by the soil type, as the plant grows best in loose, sandy soils with good drainage. The highest production is found in Andalusia, followed by Castilla La Mancha, Extremadura, Aragon and Catalunya. Navarra is also famous for its asparagus and was awarded the Denominación de Origen for the white variety, the tips of which are covered and kept out of sunlight, which prevents the development of chlorophyll. Harvests are made from March into early June, although the exact start of the season is anyone’s guess. As consumers, we can reasonably assume that it begins when the first bunches (or manats) appear in the markets, although Eduard Soley, who owns a stall in the Boqueria and knows more than most about asparagus, is adamant that the season gets underway on St Joseph’s Day (March 19th) and not before.
Catalunya has a long history of growing asparagus, although production has fallen dramatically in recent years as the quality and availability of imported varieties has increased. One of the largest Catalan producers, which still distributes from Mataró, uprooted its operation some years ago and moved to Peru, where it grows larger amounts and saves on labour costs, although it still exports to Catalunya.
One example of local celebration of the vegetable is the annual Fira d'Espàrrecs (Asparagus Fair) in Gavà, first held in 1932. Although interrupted by the Civil War and post-War troubles, the fair resumed at the beginning of the Sixties, and in its 54th edition in early May, will welcome over 200,000 visitors. While the asparagus still takes centre stage, the fair has also become a showcase for a variety of local agricultural products and businesses, and is an important event in the cultural calendar of the town. On the weekend of March 10th-11th, local visitors to Godall in Montsià, the southernmost comarca of Catalunya can enjoy the fourth Fira de l'Oli i l'Espàrrec (Olive Oil and Asparagus Fair), which awards a prize to the best local asparagus and offers a chance to sample the local olive oil and see a selection of photos charting the history of agriculture in the area. Closer to home, Badalona holds its own asparagus fair at the beginning of this month, which is now into its 16th year.
The plant is native to the Mediterranean, and the consumption of asparagus can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. It was also popular with the Greeks and Romans, and is included in the collection of recipes entitled De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking) written in the fourth century and considered the oldest surviving work of its type. The asparagus was valued for its medicinal uses as much as its flavour—its diuretic properties, due largely to the high potassium content, are well known, and it was often recommended for purifying the blood. Less purifying were its effects on the soul, however, since the asparagus was also famed during the Renaissance period for its powerful influence on the libido, and was widely used as an aphrodisiac. While this undoubtedly increased its popularity with some, the Church took a sterner view and the vegetable was reportedly banned from the dining halls of numerous convents.
In Spain, the cultivation of green asparagus was probably introduced by the Romans, although the Middle Ages saw a general decline in the production of fresh vegetables. Its renewed popularity throughout Europe can in part be ascribed to the passion of Louis XIV and the inevitable rise in consumption in fashionable society. Asparagus continued to be something of a luxury item until recent times. It remains more expensive than some vegetables, but this is due to the care required during harvesting and transportation.
Originally, the asparagus consumed in Spain was the wild variety, or espárrago triguero, the name of which is taken from the Spanish word for wheat (trigo) as the tips appeared among cereal crops and even bear some resemblance. Thinner than the cultivated variety and with a slightly more pronounced flavour, the triguero still grows wild in many parts of Spain, including Catalunya, where it is sometimes referred to as the espàrrec silvestre, as it is commonly found in woodland areas. This wild asparagus is available during the early part of the year when it is warmed by the winter sun, although there are inevitably farmed varieties that prolong the season (it isn’t uncommon to find trigueros in restaurants throughout the summer, when you can be fairly certain that they won’t be wild, whatever the menu says).
The larger, farmed asparagus was popularised in Spain in the 18th century, and cultivation spread in the early part of the 20th century. It has since become indispensable in the Spanish diet, due partly to its enormous versatility and also to the properties that were prized centuries ago. Approximately 85 percent of asparagus is water and it contains very few calories and large amounts of fibre. It also contains vitamins A and C, beneficial minerals such as phosphorus, calcium and magnesium, and is an excellent antioxidant. Asparagus provides the highest amount of folic acid of any vegetable, which is important in the formation of blood cells and growth.
A good asparagus is essentially a fresh one, and this should always be easy to tell from the tips, which should be firm to the touch. At the beginning and end of the season, the stalks tend to be dryer and woodier, and it is usually necessary to discard a little more. Given their valuable vitamin and mineral content, it is best to cook asparagus as little as possible, which also helps to preserve their subtle flavour, but a glance at menus around Barcelona will give you an idea of their versatility, as you will almost certainly see them in risottos, revueltos, tortillas, soups, grilled as a starter or with a main dish, or even served as a purée to accompany meat or seafood.
Probably the healthiest method is to steam them, although perhaps the most typical way to eat asparagus in Catalunya is simply griddled and served with a romesco sauce. For the more adventurous (and well-heeled), there is always asparagus foam, although the mention of it was met with looks of disapproval by a number of stall-holders in a local market.
Eat it fresh, keep it simple, and rejoice that once again it’s the season for the king of vegetables.
Ajuntament de Gavá, Tel: 900 66 33 88
Godall, Tel: 977 73 81 26 firstname.lastname@example.org
Ajuntament de Badalona, Tel: 93 483 2600; email:email@example.com