White Asparagus, the Sun-Deficient King of Vegetables
'Tis the season for white asparagus, the occasional ghost that comes and goes every year. They don't see the light of day, hence its albino nature. Peculiar but delicious, and chef Hans of Kaiserhaus shares with us everything he knows about the king of all vegetables.
Why do chefs go nuts over white asparagus every year?
It takes at least three years before the initial batch of white asparagus can be harvested. After that, they can be harvested comfortably each season for at least 15 years. The care and method that goes into planting the asparagus is critical to a healthy harvest. This, along with the fact that it’s only available for less than two months each season, is why they call the white asparagus the ‘King of Vegetables’ and is what makes it so special.
Why and when did people start growing asparagus without sunlight?
White asparagus is the predominant selection available in Europe and has been the most popular choice for centuries. The white colour is due to the fact that the asparagus crown, the most important part of the spear is covered with soil to block sunlight which results in the white variation. There are a lot of elements that determine a good harvest – from the climate, soil condition, region, cultivation process and of course the harvesting itself which is done by hand. It's a very complex method.
How tedious is the harvesting?
All white asparagus at Kaiserhaus is sourced from the picturesque Marchfeld region in Austria and each ivory spear is harvested by hand. As a chef, I wouldn't describe the process as tedious – I appreciate the love and nurturing each asparagus receives from the producers. This is another reason why it fetches the high prices in the market.
How do we choose the right kind?
“Older” asparagus can be quite hard on the outside and should be avoided. Fresh asparagus should be consumed within three days from harvesting, ideally immediately. At Kaiserhaus, for the entire month of May, we have a regular supply of freshly harvested, air-flown Asparagus, directly from Austria which comes in every three days. This is only way we can ensure the finest quality.
Which country farms the best?
Austria is one of the most recognized white asparagus producers in Europe. Kaiserhaus sources its white asparagus from the Marchfeld region.
Compared to green asparagus, how different is it in terms of taste, nutrients and cooking?
As I grew up with the seasonal white asparagus, I have a preference and slight bias towards it. I personally prefer the white asparagus as it is slightly more tender. Both white and green asparagus have antioxidant contents that are beneficial to our health. For me, white asparagus has a more natural sweet and earthier taste than the green variation. As far as cooking is concerned, simplicity is key in getting the most out of this beautiful vegetable. Blanching them for a few minutes and adding a light seasoning is the best way to enchance its distinct natural flavour.
Why should it be more expensive than green asparagus?
Green asparagus is easily available all year round and can be sourced from all over the globe. White asparagus on the other hand is seasonal and only available for less than two months per year requiring a harmonious combination of natural elements and skill to harvest a great batch each season.
Is it difficult to cook right? What’s the best technique to do so?
Cooking is very simple. I personally prefer my asparagus “al dente”. Some seasoning with salt and a dash of freshly squeezed lemon juice is all you need after a quick blanch as it’s important that the asparagus still has a crunch. There are chefs who do add some milk while simmering too. The point is never to overcook it.
Must the tough, bitter peel be removed or can it be put to good use?
The asparagus definitely has to be peeled before cooking. The skin can be used to make a stock which can be used for the asparagus soup.
Can we eat white asparagus raw?
Absolutely. Eating it raw is the most nutritional method and contains the most vitamins. I would rather a eat raw asparagus than an overcooked, soft one.
Until June 5th, you can enjoy this seasonal classic at Kaiserhaus located at Capitol Theatre, 17 Stamford road, 02-06 and 03-06. Get your table here today.
Photo: Kirsty McWhirter