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