Spring has sprung and that means asparagus is back in abundance. In France, it is mainly grown in the Loire Valley, Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Occitanie, and in Alsace, and picking is a skilled job which has to be done by hand.
Among the best-known varieties are Argenteuil asparagus from the Île-de-France and the asparagus grown in the sands of the Landes. Its colour – and therefore taste – varies depending on how it is grown. White asparagus, for instance, grows underground, protected from the sun’s rays, and is harvested before it begins to appear above soil level. This tasty, tender variety is mainly found in Alsace, Camargue and Landes. Meanwhile, purple asparagus has poked its nose above ground just long enough to get some colouring from the sun, while green asparagus grows entirely in the open air, the green colouring the result of chlorophyll that reacts to the sun.
Asparagus can be eaten cooked, hot or warm with a vinaigrette or hollandaise sauce, dipped in boiled eggs or added to a salad. It’s fantastic charred, but be quick – you don’t want to overcook it.
When it comes to shopping for asparagus, look out for straight, undamaged stems with tightly closed buds. Store raw asparagus for no more than three days, wrapped in newspaper or a damp cloth, in the crisper of the refrigerator, and once cooked, use it straight away. If you’re heading to the market in France, here are three varieties worth popping in your panier…
L’asperge du Blayais IGP
Produced in small family farms in the north of the Gironde and near its estuary, Blayais asparagus is harvested from the end of February until the end of May. The black sands are very rich in humus, which gives this variety its sweet taste. It obtained its PGI status in 2015.
L’asperge des sables des Landes IGP
This white asparagus owes its character to the Landes terroir, a marriage of sandy soil and a mild oceanic climate. It is harvested from March to June. Awarded in 2005, the IGP Asperges des Sables des Landes certifies production of this high-end vegetable take place exclusively in the Landes area, from asparagus groves to sale.
Grown in very small quantities, the white asparagus of Camargue is cultivated using a traditional method called appaillage, whereby each side of the asparagus mounds, well exposed to the wind, is mulched, in addition to the traditional sowing of barley or rye. The sandy soil of the Camargue also benefits from the saline environment adding to the asparagus’s unique flavour.