Though it may look like an albino, white asparagus is actually a carefully cultivated variety of regular old asparagus. This luxury vegetable, which Germans and Belgians go crazy for, is finally making its way out of the can and into Northern California's springtime markets.
For centuries, northern Europeans have been "blanching" asparagus by carefully covering their asparagus beds with more earth each time the shoots poke through the surface. Here, the growing season may begin as early as late February but hits its peak from late March through May.
According to Russell Moore, chef de cuisine at Chez Panisse Cafe, "American white asparagus is not the same thing as European white asparagus, and quite different from green asparagus. We treat it as a separate vegetable." The cafe serves it every which way during the season, from salads of asparagus, baby morels, and English peas to a creamy soup whose fragile flavor only lasts for a day.
Chez Panisse buys its organic white asparagus from Goleta-based Fairview Gardens, which sells the stuff to the public at San Francisco's Saturday Ferry Plaza Market. There, Sandy Lejeune, marketing manager for the farm, sold me one of the season's first bundles. Fairview Gardens started experimenting with white asparagus in the mid-1990s. It now grows the white spears under large boxes, which it opens only early in the morning for cultivation. "Green asparagus is already expensive because you have to let it grow for several years before you start harvesting anything," Lejeune says. The added labor makes the white even more precious.
But it's a price many are willing to pay. According to Michele Cavaleri, chef of Alameda's Speisekammer, her German customers are already asking when it'll arrive. Cavaleri worried her customers will have "sticker shock."
Add the high wholesale price to the fact that Fairview Gardens is the only organic producer in Northern California, and most chefs I talked to can't put it on the menu, even if they can find it. "I love white asparagus, but Alice [Waters] buys it all up," laughs Oliveto's Paul Canales, who has been known to serve it with a poached egg and sautéed black trumpet mushrooms, or dressed in a truffle vinaigrette. Cafe Esin chef Curtis deCarion says he grills white asparagus and naps a shrimp vinaigrette over the top.
You can also pick up conventionally grown Peruvian white asparagus at Whole Foods stores ($5.99/lb).
I tested both the organic and the conventional varieties last week with a little brown butter and a squeeze of lemon. The conventional white asparagus had a wonderful texture, but its flavor was as difficult to chase down as the spears themselves. And the organic spears needed a couple more weeks to reach their peak; they still were a bit woody and bitter at the bottoms. But the tips, opalescent and mottled with purple, had a sweet, meaty flavor that called out for ham, eggs, butter -- and truffles.