Asparagus: The Dutch love affair with white gold
You might not know it but the Dutch - much like their German neighbours - absolutely adore asparagus. When asparagus season rolls around, the vegetable is quick to appear on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus across the country, as the people of the Netherlands do their best to make the most of the season while it lasts.
If you’re new to the country and are therefore unfamiliar with this seemingly random obsession, or are just looking for inspiration for how to cook your latest batch of fresh white asparagus, here’s a guide to everything you need to know about this beloved veggie - from how it grows and how to cook it, to the reason for the Dutch love of this food.
The Dutch obsession with asparagus (asperge)
The Dutch love asparagus (or asperges) so much that they even refer to it as “white gold” (witte goud). One of the reasons asparagus is so cherished by the Dutch is that it's grown right here in the Netherlands, and is only in season for a relatively short period of time every spring.
But where did this obsession all begin? Well, it’s not just the people of the Netherlands who love this vegetable. In fact, white asparagus is popular among people across Europe and western Asia, and is generally favoured over its green alternative for being less bitter in taste and more tender in texture.
The European love for asparagus dates all the way back to the days of the Roman Empire, as a recipe for cooking asparagus is part of one of the oldest surviving collections of recipes. In the 2nd century AD, a prominent Greek physician recommended asparagus for its medicinal purposes, and later it was celebrated for its supposed aphrodisiacal power.
A history of asparagus growing in the Netherlands
The Dutch don’t just love eating asparagus - they love growing it too, and apparently, they’ve been doing it for a while. Records from the 17th century reveal that it was Dutch immigrants who brought the crop over to the United States. In records from around 1655 Adriaen van der Donck, a Dutch immigrant to New Netherland, mentions asparagus in his description of Dutch farming practices.
While the Dutch were already growing asparagus in the 17th century, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the Netherlands started to farm it on a larger scale. Since the end of World War I, Limburg - more specifically the municipality of Paal en Maas - has become the asparagus capital. Nowadays, asparagus in the Netherlands is generally farmed and cultivated in just two of the 12 provinces - North Brabant and Limburg - although some is also grown in areas in Groningen and Overijssel.
According to data published by Statistics Netherlands (CBS) in 2017, the Netherlands is the fifth-largest producer of asparagus in Europe, harvesting 18,6 thousand tonnes of the stuff in 2016 and beating the likes of the UK and Austria. A significant proportion of Dutch asparagus supplies are exported to Germany.
Image credit: The Dutch Photographer via Shutterstock.com.
Asparagus season in the Netherlands
Asparagus season is pretty short, lasting only two to three months. In the Netherlands, the first asparaguses normally appear in March (but it depends on the weather), with harvesting taking place between mid-April and the end of June.
The asparagus plant
The asparagus plant (scientific name Asparagus officinalis) is native to the western coast of Europe, from northern Spain up to northwestern Germany, as well as the coasts of Ireland and Great Britain and western Asia.
Asparagus is a herbaceous, perennial plant, which means it doesn’t have a woody stem above ground and lives for more than two years. The plant belongs to the Asparagaceae family, and typically grows between 100 and 150 centimetres tall with sturdy stems, feathery foliage, and small bell-shaped flowers which range from greenish-white to yellowish in colour.
Green asparagus versus white asparagus
You’d be mistaken for thinking that green asparagus and white asparagus come from two different plants, but really the only thing that sets them apart is how they’re grown! Green asparagus is grown outside, meaning it’s exposed to the weather and - more crucially - sunlight, while white asparagus is grown underground.
As they aren’t exposed to sunlight, white asparagus doesn’t produce chlorophyll, which is what’s responsible for giving green asparagus its recognisable green colour.
Asparagus fern plants
In addition to the asparagus that many know and love to eat, there are also a wide variety of asparagus fern plants.
Asparagus setaceus and Asparagus plumosus
Easily the most widely known kind of asparagus fern plant is the Asparagus setaceus, also known as the Asparagus plumosus, plumosa, lace fern, or just the common asparagus fern. While this climbing plant isn’t edible like its more well-known namesake, it is also part of the Asparagaceae family, and belongs to the same genus as the vegetable.
The common asparagus fern gets its botanical names as a result of the appearance of its leaves. Plumosis, which means “plumed” in Latin, refers to the plume-like foliage, while setaceus means “hairy” and again describes the appearance of the plant’s leaves.
As mentioned above, white asparagus is the same plant as green asparagus, merely grown under different conditions. This means that, not only is it different in colour, but it is also slightly different in taste, and is generally favoured over its green alternative for being less bitter in taste and more tender in texture.
While the white asparagus season is pretty short, freshness is key to the preparation of the vegetable.
How to cook white asparagus
There are many different ways to serve asparagus; as the vegetable is so popular across multiple countries, each tend to have their own traditional white asparagus dish.
Regardless of how you serve asparagus, generally the vegetable is steamed or boiled in a tall, narrow cooking pot, designed specifically for cooking asparagus. The pots are designed in a way that allows for the stems to be gently steamed or boiled, while the tips stay out of the water.
If you don’t have an asparagus cooking pot then don’t worry! You can also boil them in a regular pot.
White asparagus recipe
As mentioned, there are plenty of different ways to serve white asparagus, but if you want to go Dutch with your cooking, here’s a traditional recipe for white asparagus which includes boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, ham and hollandaise sauce:
For a slight variation on this recipe, swap the hollandaise sauce for butter sauce. It's a little less work than making a hollandaise sauce from scratch, but it’s also a fairly common version of this traditional dish.
Although many people in the Netherlands prefer the taste and texture of white asparagus, green asparagus is also a versatile and delicious vegetable, and there are plenty of ways it can be cooked and served.
Aside from boiling it, you can also fry it or grill it in a pan or on a barbecue, or add asparagus spears to dishes like risotto, salads, or pasta and noodle dishes. Check out the short video below for some guidance on how to prepare green (or white) asparagus for cooking):
How to grow asparagus
If you consider yourself a pretty hardcore asparagus fan - or are just wanting to put your green fingers to the test - why not have a go at growing your own asparagus?
You could opt to grow your asparagus from seeds, but you’ll have to wait at least five years before you’ll be able to harvest anything. An easier (and quicker) option is to plant bare-root asparagus crowns (one-year-old dormant asparagus plants). For top tips for growing (and harvesting) your own asparagus, check out the video below:
If you want to grow white asparagus, remember that you’ll have to make sure to regularly re-cover the plant with soil in order to protect it from the sunlight.
Enjoy white asparagus season - before it's too late!
Well there you have it: everything you need to know in order to make the most of white asparagus season. So, what are you waiting for? Be sure to make the most of this delicious time of year before it’s too late!
Thumb: barmalini via Shutterstock.com.