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(or Sparagus or sparrow-Grass, sparagi, perage, sperach, sparage, asparage, sparagus, sparagras, sparrowgrass in older texts)
Asparagus is the vernal shoot of the plant Asparagus officinalis. It is known as a food in England, as 'sparagi', at least since references in Saxon herbals of the 10th Century (OED) and is given as 'Sperage' in William Turner's 'The names of herbes' of 1548.
French White and English Green Asparagus
While English asparagus is exactly the same plant as that grown on the Continent, it is generally grown differently and produces a different vegetable product. Following the customary English 'simplest is best' practice in all the culinary arts, the shoots are allowed to grow entirely naturally, open to the sunlight, producing an all-green spear, or to only partially earth them up giving a green-and-white effect. On the mainland, asparagus shoots are often earthed-up, or otherwise protected from sunlight, to produce a white stem.
'Carving the first asparagus of the season', Punch, c1878
The asparagus season officially starts on St George's Day (April 23), and festivals are held in several asparagus growing areas.
Asparagus causes the diner's urine to become scented with sulphur compounds like methyl mercaptan, but only about 20% of people are capable of smelling it. One of those was evidently the French writer Marcel Proust, who wrote of how the plant "...transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume."
Original Receipt in 'The Accomplisht Cook' by Robert May, 1660 (Robert May 1660);
Take two hundred of sparagus, scrape the roots clean and wash them, then take the heads of an hundred and lay them even, bind them hard up into a bundle, and so likewise of the other hundred; then have a large skillet of fair water, when it boils put them in, and boil them up quick with some salt; being boil'd drain them, and serve them with beaten butter and salt about the dish, or butter and vinegar.
English Asparagus - 'Purple Passion'
Dishes mentioning asparagus include:
Beeton's Asparagus Soup
Good King Henry, or Mercury, or Pap-Wort
Lord Nelson's Cutlets
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