White asparagus tends to divide opinion. By and large, the English have little regard for it. I know of no English producers of the fat white stalks, although one assumes that anything that can be cultivated with such conspicuous success in Belgium - salsify and endives also come to mind - must be equally amenable to the rich loam of East Anglia, but a short distance across the North Sea.
However, we are so very pleased with ourselves for producing such excellent green asparagus that we tend to consider the white rather beneath us. Much as I love our native variety, I have every bit as much time for the subtle, fleshy qualities of the blanched variety.
The Spanish appear to take the opposite view. They have had great success producing green asparagus but they tend to export most of it and import the white. It came as a bit of a surprise when I ordered asparagus in what purported to be the best restaurant in Seville and four fat spears arrived that I could have sworn had just come out of a tin. This was no act of deception on the part of the restaurant: these were the very best tinned asparagus and were greatly esteemed, just as tins of cassoulet are sold in the best grocers in Paris. But I cannot say that I was much impressed by these rather soggy specimens, however artfully they were arranged on the plate.
Elsewhere in Europe, opinion is mixed. Germans, Belgians and the Dutch tend towards white. France also tends to white although there are pockets of green resistance. Contrarily, most Italians favour green and yet the Venetians are fanatical about white asparagus. The town of Bassano del Grappa is claimed to produce the best of all and competitions and fairs are held in honour of the esteemed vegetable. Last year's winning dish of White Asparagus with Coffee Garganelli in Lemon tea potato sauce may seem just a little too inventive but there is no doubt that white asparagus seems more amenable than green to the whims of the creative chef.
One of my favourite combinations is white asparagus with morels, but in the Veneto there seems to be little constraint to the imagination. Apart from more conventional accompaniments, such as Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, prawns, eggs and all manner of pasta and risotti, the vegetable is conjoined with outlandish ingredients such as almond sorbet, pink grapefruit and, most bizarrely of all, in a dessert with white chocolate and raspberries, a dish I would go some distance to avoid.
It is all a long way from the traditional asparagus with vinaigrette or white or butter sauces.
There is a memorable story of the philosopher Bernard de Fontenelle, who felt obliged to give dinner to the Abbe Terrasson, although he was reluctant to share his asparagus. He grudgingly instructed his cook to prepare half the asparagus with oil and the remainder with white sauce, knowing it to be the abbe's preference. Shortly before dinner the abbe collapsed, stricken with apoplexy, whereupon the philosopher ran into the kitchen, shouting "all the asparagus with oil!"
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