With spring upon us, there is no shortage of exciting things to look forward to eating. One that gets a lot of attention in my world is asparagus. A perennial plant, asparagus will arrive this time of year whether you ask for it or not. The long shoots terminate in an underground cluster known as a crown, which, after planting, often takes up to three years to generate any significant production. From there, a healthy plant can provide for up to twenty years.
Asparagus’ popularity here in South Carolina dates back a century when we were among the top five asparagus producing states in the country. In the area that includes Aiken, Barnwell, Edgefield, Orangeburg, and Saluda, asparagus farming replaced cotton as a cash crop at the turn of the century. South Carolina growers shipped hundreds of railcar loads of asparagus annually. The Great Depression, unpredictable weather patterns, and the rise of imports spelled the end for commercial production in the 1930s. Many crops were replaced with the peach orchards that make South Carolina a leading producer of the fruit today. Still, a few family asparagus farms remain, making it a cherished local item when in season.
As a buyer for North Charleston-based Limehouse Produce, my appreciation for asparagus is rooted in a different experience. Several years ago, a chef from Germany was visiting town and insisted on using the kind of asparagus common to northwestern Europe. White asparagus, I learned, was the standard in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and other countries in the region where it has garnered names like “the royal vegetable,” “edible ivory,” and “white gold.” White asparagus is the product of a process known as blanching, whereby soil is mounded up around the growing stalks to prevent sunlight from catalyzing photosynthesis, which produces the green color in plants. The result is a sweeter, more delicate flavor, and a visual appeal that cannot be denied.
It quickly became clear that I would not be able to provide for our German guest through my usual channels. After a series of inquiries, I was put in touch with a Belgian produce broker whom I contracted to procure asparagus at a live auction in Antwerp and ship it to Charleston. The morning of the auction, I had no idea if we would get the product, but I didn’t want to find out what the German was capable of should I be forced to substitute skinny Peruvian asparagus for his featured dish. Fortunately, we won the auction and imported the “grass” for nearly fifty dollars per pound, each of which consisted of only four or five sausage-sized spears with real center-of-the-plate status. Regrettably, I did not have the chance to experience the chef ’s final creation, but sometimes it’s more about the journey than the destination.