Why Albenga violet asparagus – a very ancient local variety – has such exclusive famous attributes and nonetheless is cultivated just by a fistful of farmers (biodiversity defenders) and risks to get endangered?
To get an answer to my questions last week I went to visit Marialuisa, a strong resolute woman who is managing in Albenga the farm set up by his husband Lorenzo Montano, promoter of the today’s Slow Food Presidia of the Albenga Violet Asparagus and prematurely passed away ten years ago.
Needless to say, I lost my way a couple of times. But who knew that Albenga cultivated fields just skim the sea! Luckily there was Marialuisa: driving me with the mobile, before, and waving like a crazy in the middle of the road, then, she managed to get me to destination.
When I crossed the gate of Montano farm I didn’t notice at all the asparagus that surrounded me. I saw only a giant field of dark grey sand that looked unkempt. After a while, however, the asparagus started appearing under my eyes. They were scattered here and there, in groups of two or three. Long, tight, tall, low, big, tepid, all proudly standing up with their heads slightly turned towards a warm mid-afternoon sun. It was the first time in my life I saw an asparagus field.
With a clear surprise in my eyes (such a goof of a hopeless city dweller!) I started chatting with Marialuisa and all my questions eventually received an answer. .
Why the violet asparagus of Albenga is unique?
The violet asparagus of Albenga is unique for a simple matter of heritage. Genetic heritage, actually. This variety, in fact, has more chromosomes than others, 40 against 20, for precision. This prevent hybridization with other spices. Extremely pure, then, but also very little adaptable. It grows well only in certain areas of the Albenga plain.
This variety has excellent characteristic because it is the result of a careful and precise selection made by the farmers of Albenga since 17th century. They eliminated the less noble characteristics, like the bitter taste and the little diameter of the turions (the heads), while they exalted the intense violet colouring, the delicate taste and the big dimension of the turions.
Americans, Australians and Kiwi tried to duplicate it, but nothing to do, this excellent asparagus grows well only at home.
Why nowadays the Albenga violet asparagus is a very rare crop?
“Because cultivating it is a long and hard job” explains Marialuisa. “A plant takes at least three years before producing marketable asparagus.”
“Then the asparagus must be hand-picked, one by one, very delicately and only when they have reached the right size” added Marialuisa, pulling out of her pocket a small shovel and showing me how to do it.
The harvesting is also relatively short: it starts mid March and ends at the end of June. Traditionally from the 19th of March, the day of Saint Joseph, to the 24th of June, the day of Saint John. This is why this vegetable is also called the “Saint vegetable”.
Finally, Marialuisa told me, “it’s impossible to alternate the asparagus to other cultivations, because the roots must rest in peace under the soil year by year”. It is therefore a crop that leaves far little room for economies of scale.
What are the characteristics of the Albenga violet asparagus?
This asparagus first of all is characterised by the dark purple colour of the turions that gradually blurs in white. They are bigger than the others and have a lower content of fibres. They are less aggressive to the smell. The consistency is creamy, soft, buttery because it is not very fibrous. And finally the taste is sweet and delicate.
How to use it in the kitchen.
At the end of our walk we get to the point. What is the best way to enjoy this precious vegetable? “Steamed and just with some drops of extra virgin olive oil or with fried eggs” Marialuisa replied and then she laughed shyly. “I know it seems too simple, but this is the way I love them the most“. I couldn’t agree more!
As the interview was for a food blog at the end, I asked her for some more details.
First of all, it is recommended to cook them little so to preserve texture, colour and scent.
Boiled or steamed. If you boil them you should use a pot with high edges and dip the asparagus only by half, leaving the tips out of the water: they will cook with the steam
You can also roast them in the oven after a quick boiling, sprinkling them with extra virgin olive oil and, if desired, a handful of Parmesan cheese.
But since they are so tender you can eat them raw too: just cut them thinly (just the purple part) sprinkle with a pinch of salt and leave them a few moments to rest. Then rinse and season with extra virgin olive oil and some drops of lemon juice.
Marialuisa also makes pancakes, cutting the higher part in wheels and digging them a simple water and flour batter.
Given the delicacy of this vegetable, the best combinations are eggs, steamed fish or very light sauces.
Finally, before greeting us, Marialuisa gave me a last tip: never throw the white ends! Simply wipe them out of the outer skin, boil them and then blend with a pinch of oil and salt. They become a wonderful cream to spread on bruschette, a pasta sauce or a base for risotto.
I came home with three giant bunches of freshly picked asparagus. I had a lot of ideas on what to “experiment”, but then I went for two great “classics”. Baked asparagus and asparagus with eggs and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. What can I do, my beloved granny was of Albenga and she cooked them this way.
Albenga is very proud of its asparagus. Each year in May, with the aim of enhancing this excellence of its territory, the Municipality organizes various events. These include the exhibition, now at the eighth edition, called “MAY, THE MONTH OF THE ALBENGA VIOLET ASPARAGUS“.
Many chefs, not only local, adhere to the initiative by presenting in their restaurants a dish, or even a whole menu, based on the Albenga violet asparagus. To know which restaurant join the initiative you can visit the Facebook page “La verdura dei Santi”.
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