Standing in a sunny field at midday, I realize why farmers harvest in the cool of the morning. A careful application of sunscreen has vanished and perspiration stings my eyes. Tim Nourse, by contrast, has not broken a sweat. Well into his seventies, the owner of Nourse Farms moves nimbly down a row of asparagus, stooping frequently to shear foot-tall spears at ground level. Now he’s tutoring me.
“Put some muscle into it,” he encourages, seeing that I’m far from a rousing success at wielding the long-handled blade. Finally, gripping the tip of the slender stalk, angling the blade just so, and giving a concerted push, it yields with a satisfying, juicy-sounding snap. The fourth time, apparently, is the charm. “It’s the blade,” Nourse says, being kind. “That one needs sharpening.”
How a city girl made her way to Whately, in the upper Pioneer Valley, to meet up with one of the Bay State’s premier nurserymen, comes with a backstory. Armed with a copy of the forager’s classic “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” I have come with a particular question in mind: Does white asparagus grow in Massachusetts? My quest began last year, at a farmers’ market in Germany.
A wet, spring morning in May found me walking across a bridge from central Heidelberg to Neuenheim, drawn by the prospect of the genteel suburb’s Wednesday market. Tented awnings protected the growers and their wares from the steady drizzle. This is where I spied table after table of the fat, cream-colored spears, priced by the kilogram rather than the pound. In Germany, when you encounter spargel, it's almost always the white variety rather than green.
Germans, I was told, are the most avid consumers of the white asparagus. Only the Swiss eat as much. So it’s no wonder that many restaurants offer a springtime spargelkarte (asparagus menu) showcasing the grown-nearby delicacy, peeled of its fibrous outer layer, steamed, then served warm or chilled.
The flavor profile is more delicate than its green cousins, making it deliciously versatile. That week alone, I enjoyed it cool, splashed with vinaigrette, as well as nestled alongside pfannkuchen, a buttery crepe, with a side of hollandaise. At a converted 13th century monastery in nearby wine country, stalks were cradled in a savory terrine made with fluffy meringue.
Naturally, when I returned to Boston, I was eager to investigate whether white asparagus was grown in our state. But every bunch I encountered hailed from somewhere else – usually Peru, and sometimes from Mexico. Frequently, flavors of these spears had faded after their long journey north.
A recent phone call to Boston Organics, a local delivery service for organic produce, turns up only green varieties. The nice folks staffing a nearby farm stand tell me that the white ones are “really a European thing.” Even Marie Waechter, community relations director at WGBY, the Western New England PBS affiliate and organizer of the upcoming asparagus festival in Hadley, doesn’t know of a single grower there (once dubbed “asparagus capital of the world”) who cultivates it. Perhaps its absence has something to do with how it’s grown?
Both white and green asparagus are of the species Asparagus officinalis, but are grown under different conditions. To cultivate the white, certain breeds are grown beneath the ground, under piles of dirt that look like little hills. The shoots never see sunshine, so don't generate chlorophyll, which explains their ghostly hue. The green varieties that do grow above ground are labor-intensive enough. You have to wait a few years for a plant to reach full productivity, and then have to hand-harvest every spear. I have my first clues why “edible ivory” is hard to find here.
What I do discover, thanks to the hospitality of Tim Nourse, are green (and purple) varieties that may soon make their way to local markets. Founded in 1968, Nourse Farms specializes in propagating and selling berry plants to home gardeners, commercial growers and wholesalers, primarily in the U.S. The company also sells asparagus crowns, root bundles that have a higher likelihood of producing thriving plants than cultivation from seed. Once established and given proper care, it’s a plant that keeps on giving, year after year, albeit one short growing season at a time.
After nearly 50 years in the business, Nourse recognizes the value of propagating new breeds that are both hardy and delicious. He takes me to his test plots where he’s growing Pacific Purple (from New Zealand) and Millennium (a Canadian breed). My ears perk up when he points to a kind called Bacchus, sporting a pale yellow-green, that is cultivated to make white asparagus – in Germany. When I ask him about whether anyone grows white asparagus in Massachusetts, he pauses only for a moment. “I don’t know of anyone,” he says.
Since his plots of asparagus are for research, he doesn’t sell what he harvests to the public. He collects data, then gives the spears to employees to thank them for their hard work. I didn’t work very hard at all, but he gives me three full bags to bring home.
Simply steamed, the purple variety is savory and robust, full of vegetal flavor; the Canadian kind tastes classic, a balance of heft and sweet, offering delicious snap. The German spears are tender and quite delicate. I close my eyes, trying to imagine what they would taste like if they grew below ground, never touched by sun.