Two years ago, at the end of what we were told had been the coldest March for fifty years, I cleared a layer of frozen snow on our allotment and planted fifteen asparagus crowns that we had ordered from the Royal Horticultural Society, but which arrived just as a blizzard moved in. After a week, with the crowns in danger of drying out, I took a gamble and, in bitterly cold weather, planted them out.
I worried for a month whether the crowns would survive, but by late April the first shoots had appeared. Then the long wait began. You must absolutely resist temptation and not harvest any spears – neither in the first year, nor even the second. Just admire the delicate fernery you’ve created.
But now it’s the third season, and last week -propelled towards the light by the warm weather – spears have appeared which, at last, we have been able to harvest and enjoy.
Our first harvest appears to have coincided with a bumper asparagus season, as the Guardian reports here. The season traditionally begins on St George’s Day – and continues until midsummer’s day, after which spears should no longer be cut, to allow the plant to replenish itself for the next season.
Last year, the Guardian reported that in the last ten years UK demand for asparagus has soared by 540%, with the result that the amount grown by UK farmers has soared from 788 hectares in 2005 to 2,178 hectares this year – a leap of 176%. What once was a luxury delicacy is now a popular choice in Britain’s supermarkets. But, let me tell you, after eating the first spears off our plot a few hours after cutting them – there is nothing to compare with asparagus fresh from the ground.
Here in Liverpool we live not far from Formby which for a hundred years, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, was the source of asparagus served to aristocrats in Covent Garden and first-class passengers on the Titanic. Grown in the sand dunes along the Merseyside coast, the asparagus was sought after for its distinct flavour.
Until the mid-19th century this coastal area was regarded as a ‘sandy waste’, useful only as a rabbit warren. But, following the construction of the Liverpool, Crosby and Southport Railway in 1848 and before the construction of a sewer system in Liverpool, considerable supplies of fertiliser in the form of ‘night-soil’ from Liverpool became available. Local farmers used the stuff to improve the sandy soil and bring into cultivation the area behind the dunes. The resulting sandy but fertile soil proved particularly suitable for asparagus which became an important local product, its quality recognised nationally.
A handful of families dominated the Formby asparagus trade: Aindow, Jennings, Lowe and Brooks. But cultivation had largely ceased by the late 1950s. However, the Formby Asparagus Project, run by the National Trust is now seeking to revive the Formby asparagus. The Trust has established the Formby Asparagus Trail to tell the story of how asparagus came to be grown in the dunes and the pioneering families behind the vegetable. Along the trail visitors can currently find three huge asparagus spears that have been sculpted by local carver, Simon Archer, out of 20-foot tall sycamore trees.
Asparagus has often been designated the perfect food. It has few calories, sublime flavour, proven health benefits (including anti-cancer properties) and, according to ancient tradition, it does wonders for your sex life. The 17th century herbalist Nicolas Culpepper pronounced that asparagus ‘stirred up lust in men and women’.
If Epicurus isn’t the patron saint of allotment diggers he should be. As far as the ancient Greek philosopher was concerned, the good life was one marked by peace and freedom from fear and dedicated to living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. The Romans celebrated the hedonism that they found in Epicurus and, whether coincidentally or not, became hooked on asparagus, discovering a way to freeze it so that it could be enjoyed during the Feast of Epicurus. Chariots and runners would speed from the growing grounds near the river Tiber to the Alps where it was kept in snow for six months until the following February.
But then the asparagus disappeared. After 300 AD the asparagus, or at least any reference to its cultivation, was lost for much of the Dark Ages. It wasn’t until 1100 AD that asparagus showed up again, but now discussed as a herb. In 1565 asparagus or spargel appeared in a catalogue of plants in the pleasure garden of a German Prince, referred to as ‘delightful fare for lovers of food.’
Today, China and Peru are apparently the world’s largest producers of asparagus. But it’s in Germany that the asparagus is known as the königliche Gemüse, the royal vegetable, the asparagus season or Spargelzeit is a massive event, and there’s even a museum dedicated to the asparagus.
Available only to the nobility for many years, by the mid-19th century asparagus had become available to the average German. Today, the Spargelfest is celebrated across Germany, but particularly in small towns around Munich. Almost every restaurant changes its menu to include multiple asparagus dishes; there are asparagus seminars, asparagus tours, asparagus competitions. In Schwetzingen an asparagus king or queen is crowned based on the ‘size of their asparagus stalk’ and there is a statue of the Spargelfrauen, the women of the asparagus fields. The Asparagus Museum in Schrobenhausen extends this asparagus celebration to an all year round event, with three floors dedicated to asparagus, including exhibits on horticulture, conservation, gastronomy, history, and medical aspects – plus an Andy Warhol painting of the vegetable.
But the most celebrated painting of asparagus was made by Edouard Manet. So – what connects this painting with Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes?
In his best-selling memoir of his family, Edmund de Waal tells of how Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of his great-grandfather and a great patron of the arts, bought Manet’s painting of a bunch of asparagus:
Charles bought a picture of some asparagus from Manet, one of his extraordinary small still lifes, where a lemon or rose is lambent in the dark. It was a bundle of twenty stalks bound in straw. Manet wanted 800 francs for it, a substantial sum, and Charles, thrilled, sent 1,000. A week later Charles received a small canvas signed with a simple M in return. It was a single asparagus stalk laid across a table with an accompanying note: ‘This seems to have slipped from the bundle.’
It was Charles Ephrussi who was the inspiration for Proust’s character Charles Swann, and who acquired the 264 netsuke that are the subject of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes as a complete and spectacular collection. In his memoir, De Waal makes the third connection:
Proust, who knew Charles’s paintings well from visits to his apartment, retells the story to his credit. In his novel there is an Impressionist painter, Elstir, modelled partly on Whistler and partly on Renoir. The Duke de Guermantes fumes that ‘There was nothing else in the picture. A bundle of asparagus exactly like what you’re eating now. But I must say I declined to swallow Monsieur Elstir’s asparagus. He asked three hundred francs for a bundle of asparagus. A Louis, that’s as much as they’re worth, even if they are out of season. I thought it a bit stiff.’
In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust names over a hundred artists, from Bellini to Whistler, and mentions dozens of works of art, making the novel, according to Eric Karpeles author of Paintings in Proust (Thames & Hudson), ‘one of the most profoundly visual works in Western literature.’ In the novel, de Guermantes comments:
Swann was determined that we should buy ‘A Bundle of Asparagus’. In fact it was in the house for several days. There was nothing else in the picture, a bundle of asparagus exactly like what you’re eating now. But I must say I declined to swallow M. Elstir’s asparagus. He asked three hundred francs for them. Three hundred francs for a bundle of asparagus.
In Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust penned the ultimate love letter to asparagus, offering these reflections as he gazes at a laid dinner table that awaits the guests:
I would stop by the table, where the kitchen maid had just shelled them, to see the peas lined up and tallied like green marbles in a game; but what delighted me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my humble chamberpot into a bower of aromatic perfume.
Ah yes, the smell of your piss afterwards. For myself, I don’t find it unpleasant, merely flowery. But others deem it unpleasant, a cruel trick played on our urinary system. Despite several studies on the subject, there seems to be no definitive answer to what creates the post-digestive asparagus smell (go to this BBC web page for a discussion, plus an amazing thermogram of a man urinating into a toilet after eating asparagus).
Finally, we come to the issue of the aphrodisiacal qualities of asparagus. Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English herbalist wrote in The English Phystian that asparagus ‘stirreth up bodily lust in Man or Woman’. The vegetable’s phallic appearance may have something to do with its legendary status as an aphrodisiac, but there’s chemistry, too. Asparagus is rich in vitamin B6 and folate, both of which can boost arousal and orgasm. It also boasts vitamin E, which stimulates sex hormones in both men and women.
So let’s end with a couple of poems that draw their inspiration from these qualities. Robin Robertson’s ‘Asparagus’ comes from his 2006 Forward Prize-winning collection Swithering. It’s dirty, and perhaps smacks a little too much of schoolboy innuendo, but I offer it for the sake of cultural completeness:
Pushing up, hard and fibrous
from the ground, it is said to be
grown for the mouth:
steamed till supple
so the stem is still firm
but with a slight give to gravity.
Each wand has spurs
that swell in bedded layers
to the dark tip – slubbed and imbricate,
tight-set and over-lapping round the bud.
In a slather and slide, butter
floods at the bulb-head.
Closely related, but a little more sophisticated, is this – from Margaret Attwood:
This afternoon a man leans over
the hard rolls and the curled
butter, and tells me everything: two
women love him, he loves them, what
should he do?
sifts down through the imperceptibly
brownish urban air. I’m going to
suffer for this: turn red, get
blisters or else cancer. I eat
asparagus with my fingers, he
plunges into description.
He’s at his wit’s end, sewed
up in his own frenzy. He has
breadcrumbs in his beard.
if I should let my hair go grey
so my advice will be better.
I could wrinkle up my eyelids,
look wise. I could get a pet lizard.
You’re not crazy, I tell him.
Others have done this. Me, too.
Messy love is better than none,
I guess. I’m no authority
on sane living.
Which is all true
and no hep at all, because
this form of love is like the pain
of childbirth: so intense
it’s hard to remember afterwards,
or what kind of screams and grimaces
it pushed you into.
The shrimp arrive on their skewers,
the courtyard trees unroll
their yellow caterpillars,
pollen powders our shoulders.
He wants them both, he relates
tortures, the coffee
arrives and altogether I am amazed
at his stupidities.
I sit looking at him
with a sort of wonder;
or is it envy?
Listen, I say to him,
you’re very lucky.
- Now I know that Spring will come again. Perhaps to-morrow?: this blog, 22 March 2013
- It’s Easter, but it feels like winter: this blog, 31 March 2013
- The Hare With Amber Eyes: this blog, August 2010