Saturday, May 26, 2007

The white spears

This photo has nothing whatsoever to do with the content of this post, as it it clearly depicts cornfields. If you want asparagus photos, I suggest you click the link in the text that follows.

Before I bore you all with accounts of our Belgium trip, another one for the foodies out there.

Before we left, when we told people we were moving to Strasbourg, most people reacted with “In Austria?” though some thought it might be in Germany. Very few knew much, if anything about the place (this is not a knock against, anyone, I didn’t either).

One friend of ours, however, being a restaurant reviewer and nascent wine snob, immediately responded with “Oooh, the have very good wines there that are perfect for asparagus.” I remember this, not only because of the specificity of her knowledge, but also for the specificity of the wine.

This was further driven home when we were flying in to Strasbourg from Paris. We had a family sitting behind us with a young boy named Henry. How do I remember his name through the haze of that hectic and jet-lagged time? Well, because his Mother kept repeating “Henry, don’t kick the chair in front of you. Henry, you’re probably annoying that man. Henry, please don’t.” I, meanwhile, was thinking, “Henry, the micro-chicken leg and soggy salad they served really left me kind of peckish. Touch the back of my chair again and I’ll be happy to rip your limbs off with my teeth.”

In any case, Henry’s Dad, at one point pointed out the window in an effort to distract the little monster and said “See Henry! Look – asparagus fields!” This stopped Henry briefly, if only through sheer bewilderment. Meanwhile, up front, Amynah and I began to giggle.

All of which to say, asparagus is a big deal here. Despite the claims of some bloggers, they are an Alsatian specialty (along with every other foodstuff you could care to name, up to and including General Tao Chicken, the good soldier having perfected his recipe here while studying Napoleon’s artillery techniques).

To rather slowly get to the point, last night we were invited out for our first Alsatian asparagus meal, at the home of a woman who goes grocery shopping with Amynah in Germany every month.

The season for these things is fairly short, and they are impossible to find after May. Our hosts sincerely informed us that as yesterday being St Sophie’s Day, traditionally the last day a ground frost is possible (Alsace invent frost as well. And ground.) and generally the end of season, we tucked in for our last chance.

The meal started with a quiche, each serving shaped vaguely like an eggy, vegetable-ridden cupcake. Then came the main show – the asparagus. Now, the Alsatian version of this plant is like the one I was familiar with from North America. First, each indivdual spear was considerably thicker and slightly longer. Second, they’re white.

Our host presented us with a bowl of mayonaisse and invited us to tuck into the albino spears with our fingers. At first I demurred, cutting mine into little pieces with my knife and fork, but as our hosts were grabbing them with the aplomb of sub-continental snake charmers I decided to follow suit.

First of all, asparagus are considerably more water filled than you’d think. Also, considerably more bitter in taste stringier in texture. This combination inevitably meant that I’d bite into a stalk, scrunch up my face like a cranky marmoset, only to have to gnaw my way through plant-tendons while smelly plant-blood and watered down mayo dribbled down my arm onto my pants. It was a massacre, I tell you.

* Ironically enough, the wine we had brought, recommended by my trusted caviste wasn’t even Alsatian, but rather from the Rhône. Go figure. Our hosts went with a bottle from their own 400-strong collection. They did say my offering was "original" which I am deciding to interpret as a compliment.


Susan Murley said...

One of the many things that convinced me that Montreal was my spiritual home was going to the Jean Talon market last spring and finding one of their unpredictable "specials" -- which that day was a huge bundle of white asparagus for $1. We bought several, cooked 'em up with homemade hollandaise sauce -- yum. They weren't stringy at all -- maybe Canadian asparagus is superior??

Anonymous said...

Sweet post, Mark. You had me at the photo.. even though it was corn. Asparagus is my all time fave veggie: white, green, no matter.. sure to be a purple one soon, the way its going. Purple is in with edibles these days. I keep saying- there's a future at Gourmet for you..