Can you imagine three asparagus spears weighing 500g?
It’s the weight recorded by the Roman author Pliny (23 AD – August 25, 79 AD) of asparagus grown in the wetlands of Ravenna in north-eastern Italy.
Some stalks even weighed in at 300g each.
The Romans were in fact the first to cultivate asparagus from the wild, growing it in trenches to blanch the young stems. Pliny decried the practice, claiming “nature made asparagus grow wild for anyone to gather at random.”
Even today, the best asparagus in Italy is still produced at Ravenna.
Asparagus has often been called “the king” of vegetables and has been treated as an aphrodisiac throughout much of its history. Known to the ancients, it is believed to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean and Anatolia, though some say it developed from “Asparagus prostratus”, a rare sub-species that grows on grassy sea cliffs in the British isles.
The Greeks also cultivated asparagus (the Greek word “asparagus” means spout or shoot) and invented a myth about it – that it grew from a ram’s horn stuck in the ground, the starting point perhaps of later ribaldry which associated asparagus with cuckoldry. The myth lingered: in the seventeenth century, John Worlidge wrote in “Systema Horticulturae” that “some curious persons put Rams-horns at the bottom of the Trench, and hold for certain, that they have a kind of Sympathy with Asparagus which makes them prosper the better.”
There may be some truth in it: horns do contain plenty of nitrogen.
There are about 20 varieties of asparagus, the most common being the green, followed by the fat white.
Yesterday, I was sent some purple asparagus, a celebration of the arrival of spring and in the supermarkets now.
Purple asparagus originates from a region around the city of Albenga in northern Italy. The spears are deep purple in colour, and a bright green colour inside. They have a fruity flavour and are crisp in texture.
They also have a higher sugar content than their green cousin, resulting in a sweeter taste. Purple asparagus is also more tender, less fibrous and the whole spear from tip to stem can be eaten.
I like to eat them raw.
They’re also good blanched for one minute then sliced and added to salads, sushi, wraps and sandwiches. Acidic dressings using vinegars, lemon or lime juice can help intensify their dramatic shade.
They can also be baked (as with white asparagus), grilled or sautéed (as with green asparagus), resulting in a more intense soft smoky flavour and bronze colour. It can also be used on pizzas, bruschetta and in frittatas or pies.
When cooking purple asparagus, make sure you cook them for no more than a minute to retain their violet hue as over-cooking will transform them into a deep bronze-green. You can also steam them in the microwave with a sprinkle of water or toss them into a stir-fry at the last minute. If barbecuing, brush or spray the spears with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and grill until tender.