After a winter of root vegetables and bread and other wan, white foods, it's no wonder we make such a big deal out of the return of green things to our markets and diets. And yet, every spring, alongside the bundles of long-awaited green asparagus appear spooky-looking white asparagus, like long, thick, pale fingers—not real ones, but the fake witchy ones with the nails you can buy at costume stores around Halloween.
White asparagus may seem sort of faddish, but it's been part of the asparagus eating and growing tradition for hundreds of years (Saveur reports it's been around since the 1600s, when the technique for growing it was first developed)—and aside from how it's grown, it's exactly the same as green asparagus. (Purple asparagus, on the other hand, is a different variety of asparagus entirely, and gets its color from high levels of antioxidants. While grown the same way as green asparagus, it is sweeter and lower in fiber—and thus, more tender.)
As veal is to beef, white asparagus is to green asparagus. It's beloved for its tenderness, achieved through its growing method—which happens completely without light. "When they grow it in the field, as the tip sticks its head out of the ground, they cover it with mesh and straw on top," Pat Ahern—a.k.a. Produce Pat—of wholesale supplier Baldor Foods told me. "Asparagus can grow pretty quickly, and they just keep covering it up to keep the light out." This prevents them from photosynthesizing, which in turn prevents them from turning green. And the result is a stalk of asparagus that is tender, sweet-bitter, less grassy-tasting than its green counterpart, and completely white.
Between its tenderness and laborious growing practices, white asparagus is even more prized (and more expensive) than the first stalks of the green stuff at the market—and you probably won't find white asparagus at American farmers markets, or American-grown asparagus in grocery stores. Pat has never seen it grown in the U.S., likely because of the intense amount of labor; you have to keep covering the stalks with straw or tarps as it grows, and it grows quickly (as fast as 1 centimeter an hour!).
See? Asparagus comes out of the ground white, turning green only once it has significant access to sunlight. Growers of white asparagus cover the tips with more soil or with a tarp or hay as soon as the tips poke out of the soil, keeping photosynthesis from occurring.
This is true of other vegetables rarely grown in the U.S., too, like forced rhubarb and endive. Both are grown using methods similar to that used for white asparagus, and both are grown hardly at all in America. And growers aren't even out of the woods once the white asparagus is harvested: It takes on a green tinge after it's been exposed to light, even in the grocery store. (This, Pat told me, is how you can tell if the white asparagus isn't selling quickly—it starts to turn green.)
But white asparagus is grown widely throughout Western Europe, especially in Germany, where festivals—Spargelfest!—celebrate its arrival every spring with entire menus devoted to white asparagus (Spargel is its name in German; green asparagus is denoted as Grüner Spargel).
While white asparagus isn't as popular as green in the U.S. just yet, Pat said that demand for it increases each year—so we might keep an eye out for Spargelfests stateside soon, too.
White, green, or purple—how do you cook asparagus at its best? Tell us in the comments.