Where the Wild Asparagus Grows
Sunday 12 May 2019 13:05
There is a village close to where we pick wild garlic, and then a few weeks later the wild asparagus, of such natural charm that the very sight of it moves me almost to tears. Why should I feel so? My almost tears are both of joy and sorrow. Joy that this ancient place, where timber, tile and stone combine to create dwellings both simple and comely, still exists. They fit the landscape so perfectly as to become part of an organic whole, yet were made by modest men patiently laying stone upon stone and whose only wish was to create a place to suit their simple needs. There is sorrow too. I guess I am in mourning for a world we have lost - although I think I may perhaps be grieving for a world that has never been.
Though there is no logical rationale for my notion I can’t help but imagine that once someone, far, far back in time, came here by chance, in the spring, leading a small group of dispossessed. This someone stops, takes in the softly undulating hillsides, meadows knee-deep in wild flowers, and beyond, a forest alive with the sounds of beasts and birds; he sees the clear water of the tumbling stream and the iron red rocks pushing up from the ground, and he decides that this is the place: the place where they will stay.
Slowly over hundreds of years the small settlement of wooden huts evolves into an imposing chateau surrounded by stone houses, a bread oven, a washing place, and even a small donjon to house the village miscreant. And a church.
There’s a quarry just beyond the village, abandoned now but once, one presumes, the source of considerable wealth for this place. The stone road passes by the quarry face, then becoming more of a track begins to push on up the hillside where once trees were regularly coppiced; their straight limbs used in every facet of daily life. Who laid the stones in the ground to make a safe way for animals loaded with the cut timber to move up and down the steep slopes? Who picked up the rocks and fashioned the shallow walls beside the track? Whose lives were spent quarrying the rock, shaping stones, growing trees and cutting wood, then fashioning it into baskets, brooms and kitchen spoons? The people who lived here in this village, who lived not much above subsistence level, growing crops, fruit, vegetables and raising animals sufficient for their own needs; people who hardly ever left their village beyond, perhaps, a rare visit to sell their coppiced goods in the nearest town. I see the shades of these people past, clog shod, clattering up and down the stony paths between their homes, the quarry and the woods, going about their daily business. The châtelain presiding over all.
Now we have come, to stand curiously peering through the gates of the chateau and make our way along the stone road, past the old houses, the laverie, the donjon. Soon we arrive at the quarry and the home of the quarryman. Another few steps and here is the ancient track leading through the woods up into the heights above the village.
Nothing disturbs the tranquility save the rush of water tumbling down the hillside, here channelled into a stone trough to serve the needs of those who live nearby. We plod on, breathing deeply, drawing in the moist mossy fragrance of the woods. Looking up, we see what we have come for: here is the last of the wild garlic, a carpet of white flowers strewn at our feet, but look more closely - see - slender green stalks with tips like tiny ears of wheat rise above the sward of garlic leaves. This is where the wild asparagus grows.
It is still early in its season so we pick only the most mature, enough to strew over a frittata or to have in an omelette for lunch. We leave the smaller stalks to lengthen and fill out. We’ll be back for them in a few more days.
¶ A note to avoid confusion: the wild asparagus which I pick in the woods is not actually wild asparagus at all although it is often known as that in France. It is ornithogalum thyrsoides - sometimes known as star of Bethlehem. True wild asparagus is A.officinalis which grows on more open ground and is common in the hotter regions of the south.
A Simple Frittata of Wild Asparagus
Wild asparagus has a delicate flavour so to appreciate it properly it’s best to keep its preparation simple. I love it on its own, blanched for about a minute in boiling water, then drained and served with a slice of sea-salted butter and a twist of pepper. For something more substantial add a couple of mega-fresh poached eggs. Or have it with creamy scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. Finally for a special lunch or supper make a fritatta for two to share.
25 g butter
couple of good sized spring onions well chopped
4-6 small new potatoes cooked and sliced
bunch of wild asparagus, blanched, then chopped into lengths about 2” long
6 fresh eggs
50 ml cream
50 ml milk
100 g grated Parmesan
Maldon sea salt, fresh ground black pepper
25 ml olive oil
This does not need to be a precise recipe. Be relaxed and add as much onion, potato and asparagus as you fancy - same for the Parmesan.
Turn on grill to heat.
In a 10” non-stick pan melt the butter. Add the onion and cooked potato and sauté both gently for a few minutes until the onion has softened.
Blanch the asparagus in boiling salted water for about 2 minutes max, drain and quickly refresh with cold water. Drain again and dry with kitchen roll. Cut into short lengths and put the asparagus tips to one side.
Beat the eggs together with the cream and milk, half the Parmesan and seasoning in a large bowl. Add the hot potatoes, the onion, the chopped asparagus stalks and mix well.
Turn the heat beneath the pan to high. Allow a minute or two for the pan to get really hot then add the olive oil. Swirl it to coat the surface of the pan then pour in the beaten egg mixture. Stir around for a moment then allow the bottom to set.
Scatter the rest of the parmesan over the surface of the frittata and place beneath the preheated grill. Keep an eye on it, allow the surface to brown a little and bubble up a bit but make sure the centre is still slightly soft.
Remove from the heat, garnish with the asparagus tips and set aside for 5 minutes. Slice the frittata in two and slide onto warm plates with a little garnish of crisp lettuce.
Serve immediately with some fresh crusty bread.
BARGES & BREAD
Pub. Prospect Books, Aug. 2017
ISBN -13 978-1-909248-51-9
240pp, paperback with flaps
Size: 216 x 138mm
Price: £12.50 Black & white
Where to find some of my writings:
Petits Propos Culinaire (PPC) is a journal of food studies and food history published by Prospect Books three times a year since 1980. Now edited by Tom Jaine it is a mix of academic study, food history written with a light touch, and slightly quirky essays written by people like me. Amongst its contributors over the years are some of the best food and cookery writers of our time. Such a special publication continues to deserve our support.
PPC 96 August 2012:
Food on the Move
PPC 99 November 2013:
Hospital Food - à la française
PPC 101 October 2014:
The Limejuice Run
PPC 104 December 2015:
PPC 110 February 2018:
Une Mauvaise Herbe; Purslane