Janny de Moor Janny de Moor

Asparagus

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For obvious reasons people attributed erotic qualities to the asparagus. Max de Roche claims in The foods of love (1990): “the asparagus undoubtedly awakens Venus”. He passes on a tried and tested recipe from one Sheik Umar Ibn Mohammed Al Nefzawi. To get the full benefit, prepare them with egg yolk, camel milk, and honey baked in mutton fat. I prefer to keep it a bit more relaxed in the Dutch way with traditional butter sauce, boiled egg and ham.

Whatever may be true of those stories about the stimulating effect of asparagus, there is no question that they have a strong influence on the urinary tract. And then the way in which they should be eaten for a long time: by hand, as if they wanted to touch the pale member lewdly before biting off the cup. The fork should at most serve to support the limp stem. In the Netherlands posh people once had a gilded ‘beak’ to attack the asparagus at the tip. That nonsense is over. Nowadays you can eat well cooked asparagus (there are special high pans) with a knife and fork.

We do not know much about the origin of the asparagus. But this “Queen of Vegetables” with her mysterious taste has appealed to the imagination. It would have occurred in ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, a bunch of papyrus reed was mistaken for asparagus 1.

The strange name is Greek and comes from ‘a-sparagos’ (unsprouted). The verb ‘spargao’ means ‘to be full to bursting’. They loved it, the ancient Greeks. But it is unlikely that they meant asparagus by that word, because it could represent all kinds of sprouts 2. In any case, they grew in the wild, as is still the case throughout the whole of southern Europe, where seeking them is a sport. These are the above-ground green species, which are also cultivated nowadays

The Romans – but then we are a bit further in history – did grow the vegetable 3. Perhaps they had learned that from the Carthaginians, because the fact is that large cultivated asparagus was reported in North Africa at the time. Moreover, Emperor Augustus (again according to tradition!) apparently knew how to prepare them best. He is credited with the expression: “faster than you cook asparagus” (but that is not certain either, even though the standing expression is attested).

 

1) William J. Darby et al., Food the gift of Osiris, London / New York / San Francisco, 1977 pp. 668-669: no hieroglyph for the word. Proof that asparagus only grew there after Christ.

2) Liddell-Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford, 1968 sv. spargao ‘To be full to bursting, swell, be ripe’, also for plants. sv. asparagos / asfaragos “1. stone sperage, asparagus acutifolius; the edible shoots thereof. 2. the shoots of other plants. Perhaps of Persian origin? Andrew Dalby, Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, London / New York, 2003 p .31 sv Asparagos “there is no evidence that asparagus was cultivated in classical Greece. Galenus (129-210): De Alimentorum fac. 11, 58.

3) Andrew Dalby o.c.: The earliest description of how asparagus was grown is found in an appendix to Cato’s textbook On farming (ca 200 BC). See also: J. André, L’Alimentation et la Cuisine à Rome, Paris, 1981 p. 22-23 and Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford 1999 p. 37/38.

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