Green asparaguses. Juan Manuel Sanz/©ICEX
Asparagus spears are the stems and young shoots of the asparagus plant, which belongs to the family Liliaceae. The spears are between 20 and 40 cm in length (8" to 16"). The leaves form scales which are located round the tip. The color is white or green, although there may be purple or pink touches. The flavor is highly-appreciated, being mild with a slight bitterness.
Asparagus originated in the Mediterranean area. Although used by the Egyptians and Greeks, it was the Romans who made it popular and brought it to Spain. Only green asparagus was grown until the end of the 19th century. Then underground cultivation began, giving rise to white asparagus, which is now grown in temperate regions all over the world. In Spain, the best asparagus is grown in the province of Granada (Andalusia), Navarre, Aranjuez (Madrid), La Rioja, Toledo (Castile-La Mancha) and Extremadura.
Harvesting usually takes place from March to June. One of the most important criteria for classifying asparagus is its color. Green asparagus grows out of the soil, in contact with sunlight, enabling the chlorophyll to develop the green color. It stems from wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius or Asparagus aphyllus), and has more flavor than white asparagus. Of special relevance amongst Spanish green asparagus is that from Huétor-Tájar, which is covered by a Protected Geographical Indication and grows in its native district of Granada (Andalusia). The color varies from dark green to purple, the texture is tender and fleshy, the flavor sweet and bitter and the aroma is similar to that of wild asparagus. Also important amongst green asparagus is that from Aranjuez (Madrid), which has been cultivated there for centuries. Bright green in color, it is famed all over Spain for its freshness and tenderness.
White asparagus is larger and thicker than green. It can be consumed fresh but a large proportion of Spanish production is sent for processing - canning, freezing, pickling, etc. It is also an important export product, mostly for Europe.
The traditional white color is achieved by piling up the earth above the planting line before the spears sprout, thus avoiding contact with sunlight, and harvesting takes place before the tips emerge from the earth. Also protected by a PGI is the asparagus from Navarre, which is obtained from fleshy white, purple or green stems. White asparagus is mostly grown in Extremadura, Aragón, La Rioja and Navarre.
Asparagus can be prepared in many ways - boiled, fried, roast, au gratin, in omelet, purée and soups, even raw in salads in the case of young spears.