Sunday, July 15, 2012

Asperges en La Cuisine Française – Asparagus in French cuisine. The Artists who Painted Asparagus or Lived Near Argenteuil.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

A bunch of white asparagus.
Photograph courtesy of clg20171

How to enjoy asparagus.
The best way to enjoy asparagus in France is also the simplest. Just order freshly boiled green or white asp­­­aragus, Asperges au Naturel, and they should arrive “à point”, perfectly cooked.  The asparagus will be served with a sauce or a selection of sauces, usually including Sauce Hollandaise, Beurre Clarifié, clarified butter, Mayonnaise Fraise,  fresh mayonnaise or a Sauce Vinaigrette. Choose a dry and lightly fruity white wine, or a semi-dry wine, to accompany your asparagus, and you will not be displeased.  N.B. Your fresh French asparagus may be offered with different sauces to the four I noted above. It is accepted that without any other clarification white asparagus is being offered.  Green asparagus will be explicitly noted.  White green or violet all cultivated asparagus spears are usually seen when15 cm  – 20 cm long.

A bunch of green asparagus.
Photograph by courtesy of Mundoo.
Asparagus is perfectly cooked when a slight bite is required, much like perfectly cooked pasta.  N.B.  “Á point”, in French,(pronounced ah pwa) means “perfectly cooked” and is the term used for any food that is perfectly cooked including steaks.  
Asparagus on French menus:
Asperges Blanches – White asparagus.

Asperge des Bois or Asperge Sauvage  - Wild asparagus.
Asperge Fraîches - Fresh asparagus.
Asperge Tiède - Warm asparagus.
Asperges Vertes – Green Asparagus.
Asperges Violettes- Purple-tipped asparagus. (Violetto d'Albenga).
Pointes d'Asperges - Asparagus tips.
Asperge au Gratin –  Asparagus served with Sauce Mornay and then sprinkled with cheese, usually a Gruyere or Parmesan and lightly browned under the grill.   A Sauce Mornay is a Béchamel (Bechamel) Sauce, one of the original mother sauces of France, with added egg yolks and Comte AOC or Gruyere cheese. 
Fresh Green Asparagus wrapped in bacon and grilled.
Photograph by courtesy of danmachold.
Asperges Blanches aux 2 Jambons, Sélection de 3 Sauces – White asparagus served with two different cured hams and a selection of three sauces.
Asperges Sauvages et Sauce Champagne – Wild asparagus served with a Champagne sauce.
Foie Gras et Asperges à la Gelée de Sauternes Fattened duck liver and fresh asparagus served with a natural aspic from the flavored using a sweet white Sauterne wine.

Poelée de Noix de St Jacques sur son Risotto aux Asperges – the lightly fried meat from the King Scallop served with an asparagus risotto.
Velouté d'Asperges Blanches -  A velvety white asparagus soup. 

Wild Asparagus.
Photograph by courtesy of Brenda.
Tranche de Filet de Quasi de Veau, Girolles et Asperges des Bois, Réduction de Bois de Réglisse.  A thick slice of a veal roast is prepared with girolle chanterelle mushrooms and wild asparagus. All is served with a reduced sauce made from the natural cooking juices and flavored with licorice root.   The cut called a quasi is unique to France.  It takes extra time to prepare, but the diner's know they are being offered a tender and juicy roast. There is no North American or UK equivalent to a French quasi and on French menus the cut will only be seen with lamb or veal.        


A cream of white French asparagus soup offered with a tasting of caviar.
Photograph by courtesy of Mirka23.
The celebration of the new asparagus season.
In many areas of France, at the beginning of the white asparagus season, the asparagus farmers will work together with local vintners, chefs, sommeliers and restaurateurs. Together they will choose a local nouveau white wine to recommend accompanying the new asparagus crop. With a number of colleagues I was lucky to be in a restaurant when local chefs, vintners, and asparagus farmers were meeting to choosing the new wine.  Since we had visited this restaurant many times and were already friendly with the chef and staff, we were invited to join the wine and asparagus tasting. N.B. You cannot expect to find an excellent or unique Nouveau white wine, but the overall bonhomie allowed us a wonderful time tasting and dining.

White asparagus served with a Hollandaise sauce.
Photograph by courtesy of Taidoh.
The various groups of professionals at this dinner awarded each other prizes for the wine’s compatibility and for new recipes that had been created. More importantly, after the prizes had been awarded we all ate some more asparagus, and then toasted each other again with the chosen wine. This was repeated joyously again and again by the judges to be sure they made the right choice of the winning recipe.  Only then could we head home to bed! Luckily we had a designated driver.
In the asparagus growing areas, at the beginning of a new season, mostly outside the large towns, restaurants will offer special menus dedicated to the season’s new asparagus. The French white asparagus season begins toward mid-March and continues through May with imported asparagus and hothouse varieties available before and after those dates.
If you love asparagus then, in season, seek out the asparagus growing areas with good restaurants outside of the big towns. Some of these local restaurants offer an asparagus entrée that may be close to 300 grams; I can testify to having eaten an over 500-gram ( 1.1lb) main course.  Vive la saison de l’asperge
White asparagus isn’t better than green, nor is green better than white. In most French kitchens, chefs will use white and green asparagus, each in its season which in any case overlap. I believe that white asparagus wins, on a combination of taste and texture, but when no white asparagus is around I am happy with the green.

Asperge Violet,  Purple or Violet-tipped asparagus. Violet Asparagus is an Italian hybrid developed naturally over two hundred years; now it is also grown in Provence and elswehere in France.  This asparagus is slightly sweeter than the green asparagus. Its attractive violet coloring is only skin deep and under the violet coat is pale green to white much like green asparagus.  The violet asparagus is sweeter than the white or green varieties. Thin spears of violet asparagus may be eaten raw and are often part of a salad.
Wild asparagus, in its season, that is May and June in France, will be on some French menus.  Occasionally it can be slightly bitter, but normally it is an excellent and enjoyable treat. When you do find wild asparagus, I am told that it may easily be transferred it to your garden where it will continue to grow. Some French market gardeners grow wild asparagus for restaurants and you will also see it on sale in farmers' markets.  Wild asparagus may also be used to flavor other dishes, and when thinly cut it may be served raw in a salad. However,  my choice for wild asparagus is when it is iightly cooked whole and then served with just beurre clarifié, warm, melted, clarified, butter.

Green Asparagus.
Photograph by courtesy of Jonathan Moreau.
Without intervention all white asparagus if left to its own devices would be green.  As the asparagus spear break the surface the farmer will cover the growing spears with earth.  The growing asparagus, covered with earth,  are not exposed to the sun's powers and the Chlorophyl that would be generated.  When the white asparagus spears are long enough, like green asparagus, they will be cut and sent to the market.   I enjoy asparagus of any color, but the asparagus cognoscenti in France will tell you that the white asparagus is less bitter than the green, and the texture is more delicate. I consider white to be slightly milder in flavor and more tender than green asparagus.
As you enter more deeply into the world of asparagus you will see and taste the difference. The best hybrids from green and white look different and some of the white European apparatus grow very thick. The thick white asparagus may make think that four or five spears are enough for a meal. 

 I grew up in the North of England, and we grew hot-house, green-house, green asparagus. I remember when the first plants were being prepared I was told that we would not see any edible asparagus for three years then the same plant will supply new spears year after year.  For a young boy used to picking mushrooms and berries in the woods and scrumping apples from our own and our neighbors orchards three years is a long time.  However, I survived the wait and since then I always look for asparagus on a menu.  Apart from its taste and texture all asparagus, it brings back many memories. In the North of England outside of a hot house you will not find wild asparagus. When, in France. I met this plant I quickly added it to my list of enjoyable asparagus varieties; wild asparagus is green, with a different look and very slightly sweeter than the cultivated green variety.
Argenteuil and its asparagus.
In the history of French asparagus the town of Argenteuil takes second place to no other; Excellent asparagus, green and white is now grown all over France; however,  two hundred years ago the most famous French asparagus,  and the most famous recipes for asparagus came from the town of Argenteuil and the asparagus that grew all around. 
Argenteuil is near to Paris, in reality today it is a bedroom suburb. Argenteuil is in the department of Val-d'Oise in the region of Ile-de-France. As the crow flies Argenteuil is less that 10 km (6 miles) from the center of Paris and via train under 15 minutes to the St Lazare Station. However, with by car it is 21 km (13 miles) and according to Google maps that is a  45-minute drive! 
The Knights of Argenteuil
Many well-known dishes created for asparagus or asparagus based sauces come from Argenteuil and are named after the town. Of course, there is a society, similar to a confrérie, dedicated to improving the world through the asparagus of Argenteuil.  You may request to join the Compagnons de l’Asperged’Argenteuil, The Companions of the Argenteuil Asparagus.

Dishes named after the Asparagus of Argenteuil:
 Crème à l'Argenteuil – A cream of Argenteuil asparagus soup.
Velouté d’Asperges Argenteuil aux Crevettes Grises de la Mer du Nord – A velvety soup made with the asparagus from close by Argenteuil and served with those small and succulent sand shrimps from the North Sea.
 Tourte Argenteuil  - A pie made with a pâte feuilletée, the pastry used for croissants. Here, a pie will be baked with asparagus, eggs, often with added ham, and usually, it is served as a main course.   This pie will often be served with a Sauce Mornay although sometimes another sauce may be chosen. 
Painters in Argenteuil
Claude Monet lived off and on in Argenteuil from 1871 until moving to Giverny in 1880; Argenteuil is less than 40 km away from Giverny.  In Giverny, Monet would create his magnificent garden. Meanwhile, while living for nine years in Argenteuil Monet painted, as may be expected, some famous paintings and the name of the town Argenteuil is on many of those. However, the most famous asparagus paintings from Argenteuil were those of Edouard Manet’s.

Edouard Manet’s Paquet de Asperge.
A bunch of asparagus. Painted in Argenteuil.
The original painting of a bunch of asparagus led to the painting of its equally famous companion, and the story about that second painting’s creation.  The second painting was of a single asparagus spear.  The story behind this second painting of a single asparagus spear relates to Manet’s surprise at the high sum a collector, Charles Ephrussi, offered and paid for the first painting of a bunch of asparagus.  

Edouard Manet’s painting of L’Asperge
The single asparagus.
In gratitude for the price paid, Manet painted another single asparagus spear, and this he gave, as a gift, to Ephrussi. When he gave Ephrussi the second painting, he noted that considering the amount paid the original was missing, at least, one spear.   
The original painting of the  bunch of Asparagus by Manet can be seen, if it isn’t on loan when you visit, at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Fondation Corboud, Cologne, Germany; that is also Cologne’s oldest museum.   The painting of the single asparagus, just called L’Asperge, may be seen in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris;  along with another 48 of Manet’s works.

Other  artists who lived in Argenteuil included Renoir and Sisley; if you are passing through Argenteuil, you may visit one of the two houses Monet lived in during his extended stay in the town. Ask for directions at the Tourist Office.
In the last few years, Argenteuil has been in the news, unfortunately, not with praise for its asparagus, rather, for the town’s social and economic problems. Argenteuil has become one of the high-unemployment areas with a large immigrant population. That means angry, dissatisfied and unemployed, second and third generation children of North African immigrants.   Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley and the others would be most upset.

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Bryan G. Newman
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