Although commonplace now, the semi-mystical asparagus still provokes sighs of pleasurable anticipation when served to grateful diners.
People go to any lengths (pardon the pun) to collect this delicacy, even risking encounters with snakes and traffic, as Donaldo Saveiro observed:
Robust ladies in rubber boots, carrying sticks to ward off vipers, can be seen constantly patrolling the highways and backroads here in Umbria from March through June in a perennial search for wild asparagus (asparagi selvatici) that grow along the roadways, so fond are the Umbrians of spaghetti alla boscaiola and tagliatelle con salsa di asparagi.- La Vera Cucina Italiana, Macmillan, 1991
Unceremoniously chopped into pasta is one thing, but chefs are often tempted by the long, delicate slenderness of the asparagus spear to over-design. I was once served twelve asparagus placed radially on an oversize white round plate. A cherry tomato sat in the centre and black drops of some kind of infused oil had been placed meticulously between each spear, to give it the fashionable splattered look without actually having been splattered. In other words, artfully instead of artlessly. Apprentice chefs will know what I mean. I think the oil was truffle, but it might have been Castrol. The plate looked like a car wheel with worn bearings. I wasn't sure whether to eat the spears clockwise or anti-clockwise, then I remembered the old rule about tightening wheel nuts: you go next to the diametric nut. So I ate them that way.
The lesson is, never over-design food. The presentation of food should stimulate the appetite, not the inner architect.
What to do with asparagus:
1. Barbecue or grill a bunch of asparagus. Serve on an oval platter with a cruet of Vietnamese dipping sauce. Sprinkle with shredded Asian basil.
2. Steamed and serve with poached eggs, shavings of parmigiano and a light shower of freshly cracked pepper.
3. Cook angel hair pasta. Chop asparagus into one inch lengths and steam with snow peas. Lightly poach a chicken breast in white wine and garlic, then cube and toss with cooked pasta and vegetables.
4. Grill asparagus and scatter crumbled blue vein cheese, capers, cracked pepper and a dash of vinaigrette.
5. Asparagus, salmon and baby potato salad. Combine potatoes and asparagus in a bowl. Fold through a can of red salmon. Top with mayonnaise and a few capers.
6. Rigatoni with broad beans and asparagus: cook pasta, shell and boil a cup of broadbeans, steam asparagus, then sauté both for a minute in olive oil and chopped garlic, combine with pasta, add cubed feta and chopped parsley.
We take fresh asparagus for granted now (even if some of it comes from Peru in the off-season) but in the past more asparagus was bought in the tin than fresh. Edgell canned asparagus provided sandwiches for generations of picnic-day racegoers or government house open day guests. Quite nice actually, on wholemeal with a smear of mayonnaise and some cracked pepper, or rolled in crustless white bread.