White asparagus is the same as green asparagus but grown without daylight. Denying the spears daylight as they grow prevents photosynthesis from taking place and this is the process that produces the green colouring in plants.
The plants are grown in the dark by piling soil on top of the spears as they appear and then cutting them well below the surface with a special knife before they grow through the soil into the daylight.
The varieties planted to produce White Asparagus are generally different from those planted for green asparagus.
Growing the spears this way involves more labour and inevitably therefore makes the white spears more expensive.
White asparagus is very very popular in Europe with the exception of the UK where green asparagus predominates. The Netherlands, Spain, France, Switzerland and especially Germany are all big White Asparagus consumers.
Certain regions of Germanany have very sandy soils that are particularly suited to the growing process and in these areas White Asparagus or Spargel is big business. During the spargel season many restaurants ("Spargelhof") open up in these asparagus growing regions serving spargel menus, organising "Spargel Routes" and week long festivals take place with music, Spargel queens etc.
On the continent white canned asparagus sits on all the supermarket shelves alongside other canned products. From the volumes for sale it must be very widely eaten.
Whilst green asparagus comes in different stalk thicknesses (stalk thickness is in no way related to quality but relates to variety) the thickest stalked white variety is valued most highly and it is graded as follows:
Extra - stalks >12mm diameter, straight and good quality - expensive!
Handelsklasse I - stalks >10mm diameter, fairly stright although a little bend allowed - good value
Handelsklasse II - stalks >8mm diamter, less stringent shape requirements - economy!
Around 1/2 of the German crop is sold through roadside standsnd farmers markets during the season. The Germans really go to town on eating it when it is fresh. The Netherlands, France and Spain also grow the vegetable in quantities and some of this product is canned whilst the rest is sold fresh. The Spanish are very proud of their crop where it is known as Esparrago. China also grows very large quantities of white asparagus for canning much of which is consumed on their domestic market.
If you want to buy fresh white asparagus in the UK or USA you will need to search it out or buy it imported online. Beware it can be very costly! If you want to try the canned variety you will get thin stalked jars if you look at the top of many supermarket shelves at simliar prices to green canned asparagus. However if you want to try the big jumbo stalked spears you will probably need to buy online and again prices can be steep.
The first thing to say about spargel is that it must be peeled. Once the outer layer is peeled away cook it as for green asparagus. The Germans typically eat fresh spargel with cooked or cured ham and new potatoes and often add a hollandaise sauce.
We have a few canned asparagus recipes and will be bringing you more recipes using this vegetable in due course.
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