There are some memories you never forget. When it comes to food, it is hard to forget the first time you tried something amazing. The first time I had dim sum was about 13 years ago at a restaurant in Chicago with my family. My first gnocchi was in Rome eight months ago with a friend from high school. The first time I had white asparagus was almost a year ago as asparagus season started in France.
Spring was coming to Montpellier, France. The days had gotten warm enough that even the French abandoned their scarves and heavy coats. My host family and I started eating dinner on the patio where we could listen to the chatter of the piafs (a colloquial term for sparrows in reference to Edith Piaf). My host mom brought out a plate of white asparagus dressed with a simple olive oil, balsamic, mustard vinaigrette. Cooked until limp, the meat was as soft as its delicate flavor. As we ate, my host dad explained how the very best white asparagus comes from his home region: Alsace.
Asparagus has a rich history in Europe. The Greeks began growing it as early as 600 BCE and it flourished in central Europe. In particular, Hoerdt in Alsace has accrued notoriety for its production of asparagus over the centuries. Also in France, King Louis XIV enjoyed this vegetable so much, he built special greenhouses in Versailles so he could enjoy it year-round. Today, even commoners can enjoy asparagus despite the season. However, the best time of year is generally April to June.
Although asparagus spread to America when our forefathers brought forth onto this continent a new nation, one often only sees the green variety in stores. While purple asparagus is different, white and green asparagus are the same plant. The only divergence is the white variety is grown in the dark. This is either achieved by growing it indoors or by constantly covering the sprouts with extra top soil. As soon as light touches the plant, the tips will turn pink and then green. When grown outside, as soon as the tips peek above the added soil, workers must cut into the dirt blindly to harvest it. The intensity of labor required restricts the supply making white asparagus more expensive, but also a delicacy.
In addition to being a delicacy, asparagus is widely regarded as an aphrodisiac. Its high level of vitamin A is reputed to increase libido and vitamin E is linked to the production of sex hormones. Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress and enthusiast of love potions, is said to have commonly requested asparagus served with a crushed hard-boiled egg to increase her performance. Throughout history it seems as though good food and sex often go hand in hand.
Despite the many ways asparagus can be prepared, I have always preferred steaming it al dente and topping it with a pad of butter and fresh lemon juice. However, because white asparagus is a little tougher their green relatives, this is not the best option. As the region best known for its asparagus is also known for its meats, one Alsatian specialty is Asperges aux Jambon – Asparagus with Ham. In the recipe, the asparagus is cooked until practically falls apart on your fork. The first time I had this dish was with my host family a few weeks later as the asparagus harvest reached its peak.
If you’re traveling to Montpellier in May, you may be interested in the program entitled, About the Place of Food: Consuming French Culture, offered by the Learning Abroad Center, a unit of the University of Minnesota’s GPS Alliance, led by Associate Professor in the Department of French and Italian, Judith Preckshot.
French White Asparagus
2 pounds fat white or green asparagus, peeled and tied into 6 bundles, peels reserved
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
6 thin slices of smoked ham, such as Virginia ham or Black Forest
1 cup shredded Comté or Gruyère cheese (1/4 pound)
– Preheat the oven to 350° and lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch shallow baking dish. Bring 8 cups of water to a boil in a very large, deep skillet. Add the asparagus peels and salt the water. Add the asparagus bundles to the skillet and cook over high heat until tender, about 12 minutes. Transfer the asparagus to a platter and pat dry. Strain the asparagus broth into a large glass measuring cup.
– Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook over moderately high heat for 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 cups of the asparagus broth and cook over moderate heat, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Season the sauce with salt, pepper, lemon juice and nutmeg.
– Remove the strings from the asparagus and loosely roll a slice of ham around each bundle. Transfer the asparagus and ham bundles to the prepared baking dish and pour the sauce on top. Sprinkle with the cheese and bake the gratin in the upper third of the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling.
Michelle Hum is a self-proclaimed Francophile and foodie. Michelle has been fortunate enough to visit countries on three continents and live in France during a semester abroad. In order to stay connected with many of the cultures she experienced, food has become very important to Michelle. A student at the University of Minnesota pursuing double majors in Psychology and Advertising and a minor in French, Michelle advises the digital aspects for A Woman’s Paris. Outside of school, you can find her perfecting her signature white chocolate fruit tarts and other treats.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Le soufflé – l’amour, la romance and ladies who lunch, by Barbara Redmond who shares with us her “ladies lunch,” with French food specialist, Deborah Lee Johnson founder of French for A While, and Kathy Morton, a Certified French Specialist, retired professor, and co-recipient of the Julia Child Endowment Fund Scholarship. (Kathy now designs culinary tours for Tour de Forks.) The soufflés, wine and champagne they enjoyed at La Cigale Récamier, a restaurant known for their soufflés, located on a tiny pedestrian street in the seventh arrondissement in Paris. Recipe included for Soufflé au Chocolat (Chocolate Soufflé), recipe by Georgia Downard from Evie Righter’s book, The Best of France: A Cookbook.
French cuisine: foie gras. In France, even if foie gras is the star of holiday dinners at the end of the year, it is a traditional dish all year long. There are thousands of ways to serve foie gras, as an hors d’oeuvre, or as an entrée. I love serving it as a main dish (with some truffles sprinkled on) after a cream of winter squash soup and before a nice dessert ― like an orange salad with honey Madeleine, or a lemon pie. But in each guest’s fond memory, the dish remains a classic “foie gras dinner.”
French Women Chefs: Les Mères Lyonnaise, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who tells the story of theformer house cooks for affluent families in Lyon who set up their own businesses after the French revolution in the 19th century. And later, when their reputation reached beyond the edge of Lyon, the most famous of them even welcomed General de Gaulle as VIP at their table.
Foods of France: Infinite Flavours, by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who delights in the unending variety of flavours available in Paris, from yogurt to jams to ice creams to spices. She shares her discovery of ginger mustard, violet-scented sugar, and saffron honey.
Text copyright ©2012 Michelle Hum
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond All rights reserved.