Local, seasonal produce is the norm in Australia’s top restaurants. In supermarkets and fruit shops, though? Not really. Most fruits and vegetables are available all year round, with fluctuating quality and price being the only clues as to whether produce is in season and where it comes from.
Ten years ago I was living in Germany. Things were different there: as the seasons changed and new products sprouted, the whole town seemed to rejoice. It was not uncommon to see strawberry stands set up inside the subway for a week or two during peak growing season, and commuters stuck in trays on the train.
But nothing compares to the feverish excitement of Spargelzeit (asparagus time) from April to June, when grocers roll out huge displays of spears, restaurants put vegetables back on the menu and cooks at home prepare huge pots of soup. Many cities across the country even hold festivals to honor the “royal” vegetable, which was once grown in palace gardens.
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All of this puzzled me. A mango or tomato party I could understand. But asparagus? Then I saw what was being celebrated. Not the skinny green crayons we eat here, but big moon-white numbers, thick as sausages. And the flavor was smoother, sweeter and earthier.
Farmers produce this white asparagus by keeping it covered as it grows, either under black plastic or, more traditionally, under a thick pile of soil. Spears never see sunlight and therefore never produce chlorophyll to turn green.
Farmer Richard Weston first tasted white asparagus in 2012, in the Netherlands, which has a similar enthusiasm for the vegetable.
“I wondered why something could be so popular and in demand in Europe and yet Australians weren’t thinking about it,” he told the ABC this week.
After six years of experience, he has just started harvesting Australia’s first commercial crop of white asparagus, in southern Tasmania. The soil here is well-drained sandy loam, which means that conditions are similar to those in Europe.
Quay and Bennelong chef Peter Gilmore recently visited the farm for a taste. He is an early adopter and has already added a white asparagus dish to Quay’s current menu. It’s no surprise – he’s well known for his enthusiasm for rare and heirloom vegetables grown for flavor and color rather than more commercial attributes like size.
With one of Australia’s most acclaimed chefs in the lead, expect to see white asparagus on more restaurant menus sooner rather than later. But not for long – the Tasmanian harvest only lasts a month, a compressed season that would surely send Germans into a frenzy.