On my way home from visiting friends who run a vineyard in Ansouis, I saw in the Luberon village of Villelaure a sign I somehow missed before: ‘Green Asparagus – Marseille Paris London’. And amusingly, the green asparagus – asperges vertes – were raised by a M. Robert Blanc.
Of course, I stopped to investigate.
The business, I was told, was started three generations ago by the first Robert Blanc, a local farmer who sold his excellent produce to his neighbors. His son, also a Robert Blanc, became a Deputy at the National Assembly (the equivalent of a Congressman) and used his connections to market the family harvest to top Parisian restaurants who appreciated the care with which the asparagus were raised.
Even today, Michelin-starred restaurants around the country are buying asparagus from the family farm. Bernard Loiseau and Alain Ducasse have even included a recipe in their cookbooks that specified the use of Robert Blanc asparagus.
I inquired – the London on the sign? Queen Elizabeth once received regular shipments from the Villelaure producers. Although now, she seems to buy more from the local market.
Robert Blanc has orders well before the harvest for its full production. Since there is a disagreement about which size of the asparagus is the best, the savoury stems are packaged by length and girth. Each category is named after a famous French star: the Mireille (Mathieu) are thin; the Brigitte (Bardot) are shapely; and the Danielle (Darrieux) are voluptuous.
Packages are prepared daily for Michelin-starred restaurants throughout France and shipped overnight by courier. The asparagus that don’t make the final cut are sold directly at the farm, from Monday through Saturday mornings, at a very reasonable rate per kilo.
When I visited, I was lucky to find asparagus tips or pointes d’amour, the only part of the vegetable eaten by Madame de Pompadour, official chief mistress to Louis XV.
The market stalls in all Provençal villages are bursting with local green asparagus from mid-April through May. You can also find white asparagus at the same time, most likely grown near Paris, with an all-white or ivory stem and a violet tip.
White and green asparagus come from the same root but the stems of the white are kept pale by being protected from the sunlight under mounds of earth. The light deprivation halts the chlorophyll production needed to turn the stems green.
White asparagus are often more expensive since growing them is labour intensive as the mounds need to be constantly rebuilt when the stems start to emerge from the soil.
As you stroll on the hills and fields of Provence, look around for wild asparagus. They can be found in early spring, especially in areas where it has rained – asparagus like water.
Look carefully in the bush for the delicate and dainty stems and, if you do find them, don’t decide to wait another day to pick them … if you do, you will find them bloomed into a delicate fern-like plant grown completely inedible.
In Provence, wild asparagus are often added to an omelette to add earthy nutty flavors.
Which is the best asparagus? Some find the green ones slightly bitter and the white ones more tender, but that’s a matter of taste and may depend on freshness. Some like large stems, some slender.
White or green, fat or slender, farmed or wild, asparagus is an easy and delicious dish that can stand alone without much accompaniment, and can be served hot or cold.
I like to steam asparagus until they are just tender and serve them with vinaigrette made with olive oil and a bit of lemon juice. Recently, I have been sprinkling them with a touch of fresh thyme from the garden. Another joy from the feast that is Provence.
1, 2, 3 Laurence Bry