‘On your plate lies the Queen of Vegetables (Koningin der groenten)’, said my table companion and she pointed at several thin asparagus tips on a plate with steamed fillet of cod and wild mushrooms. A sight for the gods, obviously prepared by an experienced ‘nouvelle cuisine’ chef.
Janny de Moor was my table companion’s name and I was lucky to have her sitting beside me for she had interesting stories to tell. She told me that she writes about food for the Dutch newspaper Trouw (every Thursday). This excellent lunch at the eminent Hague Voorhout had been organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because Leon Marc, the amiable Slovenian ambassador, was about to leave the country for good. Janny had been invited because she writes about Slovenian food and I was invited because the Hague Circle of Art had organised a reading by the major Slovenian author Drago Jančar.
I had never given the Queen of Vegetables much thought before, because, to be very honest, I do not really care much for these watery and woody grasslike stalks. Janny de Moor, however, was so jubilant about them that I almost changed my mind.
She told me that some people claim that this vegetable with its mysterious taste was already known to ancient Egyptians. Unfortunately they had mistaken a wisp of papyrus painted on the wall of a tomb for asperagus.
The weird name is certainly Greek and was probably derived from a Persian word meaning ‘sprout’. The Greek verb ‘spargao’ means ‘to be full to bursting’. Greeks were very fond of the wild plant but also of other but similar plants. Galenus (129-210 AD) wrote in his book on food that ‘the Greeks included under the term ‘asparagus’ all stems growing upwards and various kinds of edible buds’.
The Romans improved the art of cultivating and cooking the vegetable and the Arabs praised it as an aphrodisiac. The Anglo-Saxons called it ‘eorðnafela’ (earth navel) probably because it grows in a ring from a central root. Around the time of the Norman invasion it was replaced by the Latin word ‘asparagos’ in England. This word soon evolved into ‘sperach’ or ‘sperage’ which was corrupted into ‘sparrowgrass’. However, in the 17th century the old word ‘asparagus’ returned.
Dutch ASPERGE was borrowed from French and written down for the first time in 1583. If you wonder whether the Dutch SPERZIEBOON or SLABOON (French or green bean) has anything to do with the ASPERGE, then the answer is no and yes. No, the ‘sperzieboon’ is not related to the lily family to which the ASPERGE belongs. And yes… in the 18th century the Dutch ‘sperzie’ was borrowed from ‘ASPERGE’. Probably because both SPERZIEBONEN and ASPERGES were served with melted butter and nutmeg.
Today many people think that nothing tastes better than ASPERGES with melted butter, some nutmeg, an egg and ham. If you agree you should be quick. I went to the biological organic market in the centre of The Hague where they were selling these three types of asparagus in the photo. The friendly girl told me, that this was the last week. So be quick or wait for next year.
By the way… Janny de Moore gave me this tip. Take a trip to the ‘Spargelstrasse’, de N 271 in Limburg in the period of the asparagus. There are many market stalls and ‘gezellige’ restaurants like the Hostellerie ‘De Hamert’ in Wellerlooi which serve ASPERGES the way they should be served. As Janny says: ‘Onbehoorlijk lekker!’ (Improperly tasty) Thanks Janny for all your information.