In his weekly newsletter chef Cúán Greene expounds upon topics relevant to food culture, sharing insights, positing questions and meeting people who are adding to the collective pot. Each month, we share a selection of edited highlights from previous posts.
“The best way to cook white asparagus is over gentle charcoal, brushed in oil, with their outer layer shrivelling and caramelising against the glowing embers”
Our calendars are soon to read summer. We are now able to go out and forage young shoots and blossoming flowers once more. Glorious carpets of golden rape flowers replace what were forgettable green fields, reflecting their sunshine across the meadows. As the increased warmth breathes life into our soil, welcome pockets of colour scatter our hedgerows, with the initial emergence of the delicate lemon-in-colour primrose, followed by the snowflake-like flowers from the blackthorn. Only in the last week have the cow parsley fronds appeared, along with the beautiful sun-searching garlic mustard, and at last the ferns emerge with their unfurling fiddle-like heads. I love all of these, because not only are they beautiful, they, too, are edible.
As the season progresses, soon we will have elderflowers to be made into cordials and vinegar, beach rose (Rosa rugosa) petals that produce the most fragrant of syrups, and berries, lots and lots of berries.
If you’ve been enjoying the springtime return of the many herbs and vegetables full of seasonal promise, you may have noticed the luscious spears of asparagus now being stacked on grocery shelves. I absolutely adore asparagus. All forms of asparagus: green, white, wild, and cultivated. They remind me of the holidays, served with grilled fish, hollandaise and little else. There is something quite ornate about white asparagus though. I love their stark white appearance, bitter yet sweet flavour, as well as the texture when just barely cooked through. Unlike their green counterpart, they can be preserved really well, best as a lacto-pickle. Steaming works perfectly well too, but to my mind, the best way to cook white asparagus is over gentle charcoal, brushed in oil, with their outer layer shrivelling and caramelising against the glowing embers. You can try this out in the recipe below.
You probably already know this, but white asparagus is not a variety but a method of production. It is the same as green asparagus, just deprived of light. Unlike green asparagus (which is grown above ground), mounds of clay are covered up over the asparagus as it grows, which helps at blocking out the sunlight. This inhibits photosynthesis and prevents any green colouring. As soon as their white heads appear they are plucked from the soil. The process is lengthy and undoubtedly more work than growing green asparagus the conventional way, but the price of this seasonal commodity also reflects that. White asparagus has a different flavour, inherently less ‘green’, lending a more delicate and slightly bitter taste, a quality we in Ireland are becoming more accustomed to.
In Europe, white asparagus is highly prized, and in countries such as France, Germany and Holland, each year their arrival is celebrated. The Germans are said to consume over 125,000 tonnes of white asparagus each year, with festivals decorated across the prime asparagus growing regions. It makes me wonder why white asparagus is yet to be cultivated in Ireland. Asparagus grows perfectly well here. Unlike many vegetables, the crop is perennial, meaning it comes back each year and should last up to about 35 years. It is particular to sandy soil, so coastal terrain is perfect. After planting, I have been told it takes up to three years to achieve a first crop, so perhaps it’s only suitable for those with developed farms and sizeable land (and an abundance of patience). We can only hope they’ll thrive on our farm one day.
Alas, you may be wondering why supply a recipe* for something that isn’t hyper local? The answer is simple. I love white asparagus and would love if it was available here. In order to do that, there must be a demand. If recipes are created and we develop a taste for the ingredient, demand will grow and there will be a necessity for farmers to attempt the crop. Right now, there are only a handful of green asparagus growers in Ireland, which I have outlined below. It is my ambition that our food system develops and as a country, we continue to be ambitious within agriculture and produce as much exhilarating and equally diverse produce as possible.
Words & Images: Cúán Greene
A list of asparagus growers in Ireland
Castleruddery Farm – Co. Wicklow
Drummond House – Co. Louth
Grá Farm – Co. Cork
Lisheen Greens Co. Cork
*Cúán’s recipe for White Asparagus, Brown Butter Dressing with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds, is available at omos.co