There is no surer sign of spring in Provence than the arrival of the first tender asparagus spears on market stalls.
Appreciated by both the ancient Greeks and Romans – Pliny the Elder recommended it as an aphrodisiac – asparagus has been cultivated in France since the 15th century. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, also valued asparagus for its aphrodisiac potential, and in the 18th century French court the tips were called ‘pointes d’amour’ (which roughly translates as ‘arrows of love’).
At that time in France, green asparagus was rare and favoured by the bourgeoisie. The white stems were for ‘the people’. Nowadays, the situation is more or less reversed and white asparagus is highly prized for its sweetness.
The Provence region is the third biggest producer of asparagus in France and the sandy soil found along the Durance river is particularly favourable. The main season for asparagus lasts about two months – principally April and May – although some producers prolong the season from mid-February through to mid-June.
White, violet or green? The white are sweet and delicate, the violet have a slightly more pronounced flavour and the green are fruitier. France is also home to five of the twelve wild varieties that grow in Europe, and at this time of year you will see locals scouring the roadsides with a carrier bag in hand.
White asparagus grows in the dark, in raised beds of soil, and is harvested by hand before it’s exposed to light. It becomes violet when it is exposed to a little bit of light but if there’s too much light the tip starts to open and it’s no longer saleable. Green asparagus is a different variety and grows in the open air. Unlike the white and violet, green asparagus doesn’t need peeling – it’s ready to eat.
Asparagus is eaten cooked and ideally consumed either hot or warm – served with either a vinaigrette, hollandaise, mayonnaise or mousseline sauce (mayonnaise made lighter with the addition of the beaten egg whites) – or quite simply just with some good olive oil. The white and violet varieties should be peeled with a potato peeler before cooking in salted water.
Look for the freshest possible stems, grown locally. They should be undamaged, firm and straight with a tightly closed tip. You can keep them uncooked, wrapped in a clean tea towel, for up to three days in the bottom of the fridge. The best place to buy your asparagus? At the local markets that take place every day in a village nearby.
Local asparagus might seem expensive but it’s an exceptional product, harvested by hand by people who know exactly what they’re doing. The season is short. Make the most of it. It’s now or this time next year!