Con­stant Gar­dener: Mount Wil­son; Cut­ting Board on as­para­gus; Twig; Flora

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - JU­DITH ELEN CUT­TING BOARD ju­dithat­cut­ting­[email protected]

DRIV­ING in their car (“Go­diva”) around France’s Cote d’Azur one early spring, Alice B. Tok­las and Gertrude Stein wan­der from meal to meal, oc­ca­sion­ally paus­ing to “look at” a church. “Spring” is the key.

They hear of a tiny, highly rec­om­mended restau­rant at Grig­nan, “a vil­lage of 600 in­hab­i­tants in the Drôme”, where Madame Lou­bet (“pro­pri­etress and cook”) tells them lunch will be “an omelette with truf­fles, a frican­deau of veal with truf­fles, as­para­gus tips, and a lo­cal cheese”. Th­ese must be early sum­mer truf­fles, less pun­gent than win­ter’s crop, but epit­o­mis­ing spring. Alice passes on Madame Lou­bet’s “as­para­gus tips”.

“Early spring is the time for the first small green as­para­gus, very like the wild ones.” Wash quickly, dis­card­ing white stems. Tie in neat bun­dles, plunge into boil­ing salt wa­ter, about 8 min­utes (CB thinks less). Do not over­cook. “Much de­pends upon their fresh­ness.” Gen­tly melt but­ter (4 ta­ble­spoons for 500g as­para­gus), add bun­dles and 4 ta­ble­spoons heavy cream; to coat “gen­tly dip saucepan in all di­rec­tions”, do not stir. “Place as­para­gus on pre­heated round dish with the points fac­ing to the edge of the dish.” Gen­tly cut strings. “In the cen­tre place ½ cup heavy whipped cream with ½ tea­spoon salt mixed in. Serve be­fore cream has time to melt. This is a gas­tro­nomic feast. And a thing of beauty.” ( The Alice B. Tok­las Cook Book)

Come spring, says Gar­den­ing Aus­tralia’s Jane Ed­mun­son, “spears of as­para­gus will pop up all over the place” from the bare ground.

Grower Rachel McMil­lan (Scoop SA), who also dis­trib­utes for other Fleurieu Penin­sula grow­ers, says: “Our first spring crops are as­para­gus and broad beans.”

In a re­cent news­let­ter, Rachel writes: “It’s that time of the year that the pro­duce list is at its small­est. The ground is cold and many grow­ers have ex­pe­ri­enced frosts in re­cent weeks. I look for­ward to spring.”

Rachel sup­plies lo­cal chefs with unusual green­house herbs. “We stay quite cold here, un­til the ground starts warm­ing up in Oc­to­ber”; but she ex­pects to have as­para­gus this week­end at Vic­tor Har­bor.

Also in South Aus­tralia, Mark and Lisa McCarthy (McLaren Vale Or­chards) grow as­para­gus “on a sep­a­rate patch (0.2ha) where they pulled up some old plum trees”. Mark had “a few pok­ing their heads through” a cou­ple of weeks ago. It’s the “stan­dard green va­ri­ety, might be Wash­ing­ton, per­haps”. Pick­ing starts now, last­ing through Septem­ber, Oc­to­ber to late Novem­ber. In past years, “we’ve used it all up at Wil­lunga, but this year there might be enough for Vic­tor Har­bor as well,” Mark says.

He says you can re­ally only pick as­para­gus for about 10 weeks, then the crown (root sys­tem of fleshy rhi­zomes) starts to weaken.

The Aus­tralian As­para­gus Coun­cil (grow­ers, pre­dom­i­nantly families, many of Ital­ian her­itage, in Vic­to­ria’s Kooweerup and Dal­more ar­eas, south­east of Mel­bourne) says more than 93 per cent of Aus­tralia’s as­para­gus is grown in that re­gion. Mil­dura and Swan Hill (sandy soil, warm cli­mate) pro­duce in Au­gustNovem­ber; cooler cli­mate, peaty Kooweerup soils pro­duce slightly later, Septem­ber-De­cem­ber, but some ex­tend the sea­son un­til late March.

The ed­i­ble shoots (spears) push up from the crown in spring, the AAC ex­plains. Af­ter har­vest­ing (which should not be pro­longed, only 3-4 weeks for new plants), the ferny leaves grow up, pho­to­syn­the­sis­ing en­ergy for the fol­low­ing sea­son be­fore dy­ing down in the dor­mant win­ter months; ferns are then mulched back into the soil while care­fully pre­serv­ing the crown.

Vic­to­ria’s Sun­raysia Mar­ket has about four small as­para­gus grow­ers and ex­pects first har­vests at its next or fol­low­ing mar­ket (Septem­ber 6 and 13).

In WA, Shee­lagh Mar­shall re­ports: “The as­para­gus sea­son is upon us again; the year seems to have gone very quickly.” In early Au­gust, Shee­lagh and Phillip had 12.5kg at Al­bany. Now they’re “get­ting into full swing, and should have a lot more. The dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties give us a longer sea­son.”

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