“Vegetables, when properly cooked, have several important uses. They furnish an ample supply of the iron, lime, soda, potash, etc., that the blood needs. They supply the system with a good quantity of soft distilled water to take up certain poisons that ordinary hard tap-water cannot take up and carry out of the system. They form an appetizing addition to the menu. They are good fillers-up – a useful point where economy is of considerable importance. … It is somewhat surprising to find how many English housewives serve the same eternal round of potato, cabbage cauliflower and one or two other vegetables, when we consider the great variety of vegetables now obtainable. …” (Eating for Perfect Health. Food Reform and Meatless Cookery by Mrs. Milton-Powell. Athletic Publications, London, 1926, pp. 73-77). Not anymore, dear Mrs. Milton-Powell, godmother of all vegetarians in the British Isles…
May is the month of roses, of weddings, and of the asparagus. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, asparagus is “one of the most sought-after vegetables”. The asparagus is a “hero vegetable”. It can “improve your libido”. It can “help reduce bloating” and “help cure hangovers” (all from here). Britain is growing more and more enthusiastic of its asparagus, year after year. As soon as its season starts, asparagus recipes sprout everywhere on magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs and social media. Asparagus-mania is growing exponentially. Asparagus inspire people to create recipes, paintings, symposia, secret suppers in secret locations, themed parties, books, publications’ special issues, and dedicated sections of horticultural societies and workgroups. Just have a look at the @Britasparagus account on Twitter. And at the British Asparagus Growers Association’s website, full of asparagus recipes, wisdom, and passion: “Dubbed the Husain Bolt of vegetables, asparagus can grow up to 10 cm a day!”
And it is the same in Italy. Many different varieties and colours – green, white, purple, violet – are grown in different parts of the country. Hundreds of food festivals are dedicated entirely to l’asparago, with music, dances, competitions, exhibitions, and a huge amount of asparagus-based food (and wine, not asparagus-based), and are organized all over the peninsula every year – from Santena to Bassano del Grappa to Tavagnacco to Cimadolmo to Cilavegna -, some of them lasting an entire month. There even are recipes of desserts and cakes with asparagus, usually the white variety (for example, a crème caramel from Vicenza using the white asparagus DOP from Bassano del Grappa, a traditional cake from the Romagna area , and a crostata pie from a blogger from Trieste). But has it always been like this? If we look at the asparagus’ past history, it does seem that this green, lush spear has always unchained the wildest desires in all the cultures and cuisines it has seduced. Asparagus love is forever, in space and time. Absolutely asparagus!
De Re Coquinaria – On Cooking – is the oldest cookery book to have survived in the Western world. It is a manuscript written in very late Latin – a variation whose later evolution will lead to the early stages of the Italian regional dialects -, between the late IV – early V century A.D. The manuscript has erroneously been attributed to an author named Apicius, but in fact it’s anonymous. The recipes below are from the manuscript’s first English translation, Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, by Joseph Dommers Vehling, published by Walter M. Hill in 1936 (so famous that it has been reprinted in 1977 by Dover Publications). It can be read in a more complete critical (and free) edition here.
A LATE LATIN RECIPE. 72: ASPARAGUS. Asparagus [in order to have it most agreeable to the palate] must be peeled, washed and dried and immersed in boiling water backwards. (From De Re Coquinaria, Book III-The Gardener, Chapter III-Asparagus)
Romans were absolutely crazy about asparagus. They would go great lengths to provide their gluttonous tables with the vegetable spears as much as they could – seemingly even sending purpose-built ships to get them from Asia, also called ‘asparagus’. I guess Romans were perhaps not so fussy about the very unique, pungent odour that this vegetable causes when… expelled by humans, which is actually due to some degradation products containing sulfur. According to two different British scientific studies, the asparagusic acid may be produced only by 40% of the population, or by everyone, but only a lucky 40% of us is able to smell it and detect its whiff. Pellegrino Artusi, the very first and still most famous Italian male celebrity chef, indicates a short and intriguing method for this in a paragraph on asparagus that can be found his masterpiece La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, 1891): “Il cattivo odore prodotto dagli sparagi si può convertire in grato olezzo di viola mammola, versando nel vaso da note alcune gocce di trementina” (“The bad odour produced by asparagus can be turned into an agreeable scent of wood violet pouring a few drops of turpentine in one’s night pot” – P. Artusi, Bi Classici publisher, 2016, p. 266).
A SECOND LATIN RECIPE. 133. ANOTHER ASPARAGUS CUSTARD. Asparagus pie is made like this: Put in the mortar asparagus tips; crush pepper, lovage, green coriander, savory and onions; crush, dilute with wine, broth and oil. Put this in a well-greased pan, and, if you like, add while on the fire some beaten eggs to it to thicken it, cook without boiling the eggs and sprinkle with very fine pepper. (From De Re Coquinaria, Book IV-Miscellanea, Chapter II-Dishes of Fish, Vegetables, Fruits, and so forth. The asparagus tips should be cooked before being put in the mortar).
Between the late 14th or early 15th century, we find another recipe on the green spear in the Libro della Cocina (Book of Cooking), an anonymous manuscript in early Tuscan dialect, one of the regional derivations of very late Latin. It’s a simple and effective recipe, but it involves the quite pricey saffron spice, which the author of the manuscript seems to effortlessly suggest to sprinkle in many dishes, both vegetable and meat-based.
A LATE MEDIEVAL RECIPE: OF ASPARAGUS. Take the asparagus and boil it when it is cooked, put it to cook with oil, onions, salt, and saffron, and with ground spices, or without asparagus, onion, olive oil, salt, saffron, pepper (From The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, by Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, and Silvano Serventi, translated by Edward Schneider, and published by The University of Chicago Press, 1998. Complete online edition here, and “sparaci” recipe’s critical version here).
Asparagus is quite a remarkable plant indeed, full of fun facts. The English ‘asparagus’ is actually a Latin word which comes from an Ancient Greek adaptation of the original Persian term ‘asparag’ – ‘sprout’ or ‘shoot’. This green god, anciently used as medicine and thought to also have aphrodisiac properties (possibly for its… Freudian shape?) is a quite complex plant. It is 93% water. Its unearthed part is formed by with stout stems, and ‘leaves’ which are in fact modified stems clustered together in rose-like shapes. Its fruit is a small red berry with black seeds, which is poisonous to humans. Its underground rhizome roots create quite intricate and beautiful patterns. The most famous of king Louis XV of France’s official mistresses, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson or Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), was also a very good chef, and loved asparagus. So much that she even created a recipe, immortalized in the legendary publication by the greatest, gluttonest gourmet Monsieur Grimod de la Reynière’s L’Almanach des gourmands (1803-1812). He must have been a terribly decadent Roman emperor in a previous life, and that is why I am including this French asparagus among our GreatbrItalian recipes,
A VERY ARISTOCRATIC FRENCH RECIPE. ASPERGES À LA POMPADOUR. Dress and cook the asparagus in the normal way, plunging them into boiling salted water. (She used white Dutch asparagus with violet tips). Slice them diagonally into pieces no longer than the little finger. Take only the choicest sections, and, keeping them hot, allow them to drain in a warm napkin while the sauce is being prepared in the following way. In a bain marie, work ten grams of flour and a lump of butter together, a good pinch of nutmeg, and the yolks of two eggs diluted with four spoonfuls of lemon juice. After cooking the sauce, drop in the asparagus tips and serve in a covered casserole. (From Encyclopaeida of the Exquisite by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, 2010, Doubleday; recipe also on her blog).
(Edouard Manet, Bunch of Asparagus, 1880)
100 years after Madame de Pompadour’s death, asparagus has an interesting recipe followed by a paragraph on its medicinal uses in “the most famous English cookery book ever published” (as Nicola Humble defines it in her introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics 2000 Edition, republished in 2008). Isabella Beeton, the first British celebrity chef – and woman celeb chef, food writer and journalist – of early modern times is the author of the bestseller Book of Household Management [this link has a complete free edition of the book and complete information on Mrs Beeton], with a little hand from her beloved husband. They truly were a power couple of the press industry, writing and publishing together even before getting married, until Isabella’s very untimely death in 1865.
Mrs Beeton’s “was one of the major publishing success stories of the nineteenth century, selling over 60,000 copies in its first year of publication in 1861, and nearly two million by 1868. For the next century the names ‘Mrs Beeton’ and ‘Household Management’ were to continue to make enormous profits for Ward, Lock & Co., to whom Isabella’s publisher husband Sam sold the rights in a disastrous deal soon after her death [at 28, during childbirth]. … In the recipe sections which formed the bulk of her book, Beeton retained her journalistic perspective, approaching each dish as a novice rather than an expert, and painstakingly describing every stage in its construction. Her style is matter-of-fact, and determinedly impersonal. … Beeton habitually omits explanation in the recipe themselves, with sometimes frustrating results (she gives a recipe, for instance, for ‘asparagus peas’, in which the asparagus is laboriously cut into pea-sized segments, with no indication of why anyone would wish to make one luxury vegetable resemble another; we have to turn to [earlier food writer Eliza] Acton for the information that the process is used for very young asparagus, when the stems are too small to make a good appearance whole)” (Nicola Humble, Introduction, pp. VII-XV).
A question now, Dear Reader: if “the reassuringly plodding Beeton was the Delia Smith [of her day] – … reaching a far wider range of the population, and decisively affecting the eating habits of the nation” (as Humble describes her, p. XV), does it mean that every single Victorian household would always eat tiny bits of asparagus finely chopped and looking like peas in disguise? Really, cooking over a fire instead of having at least an Aga cooker surely was more than enough. I truly hope some revolutionary Victorian woman did get fed up of all this chopping, throwing her knife on the floor dramatically proclaiming that life is too short to chop asparagus! (see post on Jane Grigson). And decided one day, at least once in her lifetime, to free herself from the slavery of chopping, be lazy and slightly, inadvertently cheeky, leaving the imperious, erect, Freudian stems intact on the plate, for the joy of her prude, repressed, sensible, moral eyes. Let’s hope so, Dear Reader.
MRS BEETON’S ASPARAGUS PEAS. Asparagus Peas (entremets, or to be served as a Side-dish with the Second Course).
INGREDIENTS – 100 heads of asparagus, 2 oz. of butter, a small bunch of parsley, 2 or 3 green onions, flour, 1 lump of sugar, the yolks of 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons of cream, salt.
Mode. – Carefully scrape the asparagus, cut it into pieces of an equal size, avoiding that which is in the least hard or tough, and throw them into cold water. Then boil the asparagus in salt and water until three-parts done; take it out, drain, and place it on a cloth to dry the moisture away from it. Put it into a stewpan with the butter, parsley, and onions, and shake over a brisk fire for 10 minutes. Dredge in a little flour, add the sugar, and moist with boiling water. When boiled a short time and reduced, take out the parsley and onions, thicken with the yolks of 2 eggs beaten with the cream; add a seasoning of salt, and, when, the whole is on the point of simmering, serve. Make the sauce sufficiently thick to adhere to the vegetable.
Time – Altogether, ½ hour. Average cost, 1s. 6d. a pint. Seasonable in May, June, and July.
MEDICINAL USES OF ASPARAGUS. – This plant not only acts as a wholesome and nutritious vegetable, but also as a diuretic, aperient, and deobstruent. The chemical analysis of its juice discovers its composition to be a peculiar crystallisable principle, called asparagin, albumen, mannite, malic acid, and some salts. Thours says, the cellular tissue contains a substance similar to sago. The berries are capable of undergoing vinous fermentation, and affording alcohol by distillation. In their unripe state they possess the same properties as the roots, and probably in a much higher degree.
Florence White (1963-1940) could have been Mrs Beeton’s daughter, and was what some of Isabella Beeton’s young women acolytes would have possibly liked to be, had they not been living in a very Victorian society: the first freelance cookery writer and journalist. In her 1932 collection of historical recipes, from 1399 to 1932, titled Good Things in England. A practical Cookery Book for Everyday Use (reprinted by Persephone Books in 1999), the first recipe in the Vegetables chapter is on asparagus (p. 207) and without any other information Florence writes that it comes from 1845 – almost two decades before the Beeton revolution.
HOW TO COOK ASPARAGUS. 1845. With a sharp knife scrape the stems of the asparagus lightly but very clean, from within one to two inches of the green tender points.
1.Throw them into cold water as they are done, and when all are ready tie them in bunches of equal size, cut the large ends evenly, that the asparagus may be of the same length, and put it into plenty of boiling water using 2 oz salt to every gallon of water.
2. Directly the heads are tender lift out the asparagus and dish up on toast that has been quickly dipped in the water in which the asparagus has been boiled.
TIME: to boil 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, in Italy, after Pellegrino Artusi’s lurking predominance over the new 20th century, the 1920s saw a relative explosion of cookery books written by women. The Italian food writer Ada Boni (1891-1973) was one of the first women to write about food in the country and had just published her hugely successful cookery book, Il Talismano della Felicità in 1927, which immediately became a huge bestseller. It was literally a huge success also as it started with 600 pages in its first edition ending with almost 2,500 pages in its seventh and last; and it is still published today. It was later published in English as The Talisman Italian Cookbook: Italy’s Bestselling Cookbook Adapted for American Kitchens (Crown/Random House, 1950), extremely abridged and with new Italian recipes adapted for the American palate introduced by its translator Matilde La Rosa. A medium-upper bourgeoise with a happy and economically sound life, Ada Boni was born and lived in Rome and the niece of a famous food magazine’s editor. She founded a women’s magazine, Preziosa (Precious), for “those who could afford the maid but not the cook”, as she wrote. Preziosa lasted from 1915 until 1959, not quite really interrupted by two world wars, promoting one of the womanly virtues that were a must during the twenty years of the fascist regime: cooking, being an industrious more or less upper middle class woman in the kitchen, able to make all sorts of dishes with grace. The following recipe [my translation] is one among many involving asparagus from her Talisman, and can be really good for breakfast or a lazy Sunday brunch.
ADA BONI’S POACHED EGGS WITH ASPARAGUS’ TIPS.
For 6 people: Asparagus, g. 500 – Salt – liquid béchamel, 2 teaspoons – grated parmesan, one tablespoon – Poached eggs, 6 – Optional: 6 fried bread croutons.
Put the asparagus in slightly salted boiling water, and when they are cooked cut their tips with a small knife, and keep them in a little warm water.
Then cut in pieces all the remaining soft parts of the asparagus and mash.
Gather the purée in a small pot, add the béchamel, salt slightly, add the grated Parmesan and let it simmer lightly.
Take the poached eggs, put them in pairs on a plate and pour some of the sauce on each, placing between them some asparagus’ tips; dust them with some grated Parmesan and quickly serve.
To present this preparation in a more complete manner, we advise to prepare some bread croutons fried in butter and to place each egg on a crouton.
Petronilla Tra I Fornelli (Petronilla Among the Burners): another celebrity journalist of the time, contemporary of Ada Boni, was Petronilla, or better Amalia Moretti Foggia (1872-1947). Living and working in Milan, she was one of the very first women to get a degree in Medicine and to become medical doctors in Italy, and she was also one of the very first women to have two academic degrees – the first one in Natural Sciences. When she was around 60 years old she was asked by a friend to start writing a column offering medical advice (and including hygiene, herbalist and physical activity assistance) to the readers of the Sunday supplement of the national Corriere della Sera newspaper, La Domenica del Corriere – which was sadly ceased in 1989. In 1926 Amalia was to become the very respected Dottor Amal, assuming a male pen name and identity, and soon after she would also start an incredibly successful cookery column titled Tra I Fornelli using the slightly ironic name Petronilla, probably directly inspired from a famous children’s cartoon (originally in English, Bringing Up Father, by McManus, 1913). Petronilla would write very communicatively, practically (also during war times) and quite humorously for the everyday woman in her “borghesissima” kitchen and cuisine (“bourgeoisissima”, as she wrote in one of her columns) who she called “friend” and who needed to be wise in her middle class domestic economy, wishing to “know” and “dare” about “colazioni e pranzetti” (breakfasts and small, informal lunches). This is one of her symbolic columns [my translation], dedicated to asparagus, which has been recently tested here with great success:
PETRONILLA’S PARMA HAM ASPARAGUS:
“When, in the early morning, the sister-in-law makes me the great honour of one of her visits, I can be sure that it is to bring me one of her recipes, always complicated! In fact, just this morning, she has turned up quite unexpectedly, and … – Please do not take offence, my dear she said) but just yesterday, while I was leafing through the pages of my big bundle of cookery recipes, one sprung to my eyes that I had forgotten about; that of a very special dish to make with asparagus. Suddenly then I thought of you and your faithful friends; and as this is asparagus’ season … if you bother … here it is. *** Buy Parma ham, machine-cut, in wide slices. Choose pretty asparagus; cut all their edible parts at the same length of six or seven centimetres; cook them (not too much) in salty water, drain them. Wrap, in each Parma ham slice, five or six of those asparagus and pin them with a toothpick. Melt, in a small pot, some butter. Butter a copper saucepan, or even better, a porcelain or terracotta pan that will tolerate the oven. Immerse, one at a time, the rolls in the melted butter in the pot. Arrange them promptly, one by one and nicely, in the buttered saucepan. Sprinkle them with good grated parmesan. Put the saucepan in the oven, until the parmesan will look completely melted. Pour on top the butter that has remained in the pot after having it warmed up and darkened a little bit. Serve. *** This is the recipe; and I, that this very day have made it, must agree that the dish does have indeed a special taste of its own. But… asparagus cost; parmesan costs; butter costs; so that the sister-in-law’s dish has, besides its own taste, also its very own special cost too!
And finally, this would not truly be a GreatbrItalian Absolutely Asparagus post without Anna Del Conte’s two pages on asparagus from her wonderful Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes book of best recipes (Vintage Books 2006). Her recipe is the ever-delicious Asparagus with Fried Eggs and Parmesan, which seems to be quite inspired by Petronilla’s sister-in-law’s recipe, although Anna does not use ham and calls her sauce “asparagus with instant hollandaise” (pp. 250-252). Nevertheless, her asparagus information, advice and recipe deserve a separate post, to come soon, still in time for this asparagus’ season.