Story

Aspargus

It is the first vegetable that satisfies our longing in spring

Up here in Bottmingen, just a pleasant Sunday stroll from the Restaurant Stucki Basel, the wind whistles over the asparagus fields. Snugly wrapped under protective plastic, the asparagus thrives here above the city of Basel. Here and there you spot an asparagus spear stretching towards the heavens, almost begging to be picked. These are the fields of asparagus producer Thomas Wiesner. Tanja Grandits comes up here with her daughter for a Sunday walk among the fields, buys choice quark at the farm store – and also buys asparagus for her restaurant from Thomas Wiesner.

Today, for a change, the award-winning chef is wanting to harvest her asparagus herself. In wellington boots and good spirits she stoops low over a ridge of earth. It is obvious at a glance that she and Wiesner get on really well. They share a love of the good primary product. Taking great care, the farmer digs about 25 cm into the soil along the length of the asparagus, exposing it neatly, to allow Grandits to position her asparagus knife and sever the stem. It takes a good deal of dexterity to cut the spears neatly. The spear grows out of a rhizome, its roots spreading in every direction beneath the ground. Focused attention is called for to make a straight cut every time. Then the hole is refilled with earth, and in a few days new shoots of asparagus can be seen poking out of the earth.

Thomas Wiesner got into asparagus growing quite by chance. For his pride and joy is actually “Beeriland”, or Berry Land, his fields of sweet raspberries, strawberries and blackberries. An asparagus grower he knew pointed out to him that his fields were perfect for asparagus: their configuration is ideal for planting long rows of asparagus crowns, and the soil up here is loose, sandy and not too wet. So he embarked on the adventure – and has never regretted it. Perseverance has always been his most important companion. Once prepared, a field takes all of four years until the first crop is ready. Four years of loving care and attention – without the thought of any profit. Cultivating asparagus calls for hard work and patience in equal measure.

But Wiesner also has to listen to nature. If the weather is too cold, the asparagus grows in slow motion. If it rains too much, he is out every hour to prevent his fields from getting waterlogged, which would be deadly for the plants. But if it is too warm, the asparagus spears virtually shoot out of the earth under the warmth of the black sheeting and must be harvested swiftly.
It is a natural cycle that is no longer understood today, thanks to the imports from abroad. “You can get asparagus from Mexico as early as January. And of course there are customers who want my asparagus long before it is ready for harvest.” Yet that is precisely the most important communication that has to take place. No-one knows better than the farmer when the vegetable has reached the peak of its flavour: when the asparagus tastes best and has absorbed enough goodness from the soil and enough sun from the sky, to be be harvested at exactly the right point in time. It pains Wiesner’s soul when this is not properly understood.
Nature has taught him to wait and be patient. “There is nothing to be gained by harvesting vegetables or fruit just because you want to serve berries at Easter. The same is true for asparagus spears – you have to wait for the really good ones.” And he has never yet missed the perfect moment, he says. Every day he examines with scrupulous precision how the asparagus is doing. An announcement on the company’s answering machine even lets the customer know the state of the harvest.

For Tanja Grandits, talking to her suppliers is something she does as a matter of course. “The producer is so close to the product, he knows when it has developed its full flavour.” – When the white asparagus is so tender that its succulent tips seem to almost melt in your mouth. Green asparagus has a somewhat more intense taste: growing out above the surface of the soil, it gets so much light that it not only turns green, but also contains more vitamin C and beta carotene.

This is what is meant by healthy vegetables: those that have been given enough time to grow in peace and absorb all the important nutrients from the soil.
“I make sure my vegetables are organic. It’s the way I want it – although my highest priority is always the quality, regardless of the label. And the best products are mostly organically grown,” Tanja Grandits explains. What’s nice here is that a certain harmony prevails in the choice of products: the beef is from the countryside around Basel, the lamb from the Bernese Oberland. The Riebelmais-fed poulardes, from breeders in Eastern Switzerland, taste as good as Bresse chickens from Lyon. And vegetables, if at all possible, are sourced in the immediate region. Having everything so close at hand greatly enhances the top chef’s contact with her producers. Instead of just filling out an order form, they actually talk to each other. Is the asparagus ripe yet? Have the tomatoes filled up on enough sun? – In the case of Thomas Wiesner, with his being just a stone’s throw away, he can even jump on his bike if need be and deliver some more asparagus to the Stucki kitchen. This guarantees a freshness that is second to none. And also helps boost business locally. When people work together so closely, each has to be able to rely on the other. And each partner wants to provide the best possible service to the other.

This is the freshest asparagus Tanja Grandits could wish for, and she particularly likes how it comes straight from the field to her kitchen. She laughs and proudly holds up the fat white spear of asparagus that she has just cut from the soil.
Thomas Wiesner presses on the cut end, and a clear juice runs out. You suddenly realise what “freshly harvested” really means. And recall with a shudder the asparagus with woody ends that you often find on sale.
As the chef and the vegetable farmer place the last stalks of asparagus into the basket, the asparagus washing machine is already running at full speed in the yard. Here the asparagus is placed in a neat row on the conveyor belt. The spears are carefully examined and, if necessary, cut again cleanly, then freshly washed and sorted by thickness and length.

There is also a basket for broken asparagus, for the misshapen beauties, where the tender tip is a little too knobby, or where the skin is damaged. “A lot of customers are upset by blemishes and want only perfect asparagus,” Wiesner comments. But he is admirably passionate in his refusal to throw asparagus away. “Because even if it doesn’t look entirely perfect, it still tastes exquisite!”

Growing asparagus is too laborious for him, the product too dear to him not to devote his complete attention and meticulous care to every single step. And exactly the same awareness is in evidence when Tanja Grandits cooks the asparagus at her 2-star restaurant in Basel. Sitting in the spring sunshine at the large table in the rear courtyard, cautiously peeling the asparagus, she indulges in a bit of culinary fantasizing. “I’d most like to make a simple soup out of this.” – No wonder, so fresh from the field, they don’t need much to unfold their consummate flavour. The best thing about soup: “It’s also a wonderful way of making use of the stem cut-offs and deformed tips.” Food waste is not an issue for the expert chef, in that she always does her best to use everything in her cooking anyway. And never to throw anything away.

“The most important thing for a chef is actually having the best products to start with. That can be a good fish but also a simple vegetable,” says Grandits. Add to that some creativity and the talent of making an amazing dish from the very simplest of products – yet without distorting the taste; instead, teasing it out fully and complementing it perfectly with other ingredients.
The skilled chef, who prepares her dishes so that they harmonise in flavour as well as in colour, likes to combine asparagus with vanilla. “Vanilla goes well with many white ingredients – and so too with white asparagus. Poached in the oven in a parchment papillote with a little vanilla or served with a homemade vanilla oil, you get a beautifully rounded aroma.”
Another white ingredient is jasmine blossom, with which she flavours her asparagus soup. For this, she places a ricotta flan in the bowl and garnishes it with the dainty fresh blossoms. And of course the asparagus turns out somewhat richer if it is baked in a tempura batter and served on buckwheat risotto with vanilla pod and parmesan.
But the asparagus stalks that she cut fresh from the field with Thomas Wiesner are destined for the current Aroma Menu at Restaurant Stucki: brown trout, lemon oil, egg and – asparagus with mustard seeds. Here again the harmony is evident: indigenous fish, good local eggs, asparagus harvested freshly from close by.

The asparagus season on Thomas Wiesner’s field lasts until June 24, or St John’s Day, when the summer reaches its zenith. On the day on which the sun lights the sky for the longest, the asparagus is harvested for the last time, after which it is left to grow into ferns. And then it has many months’ time to regain its strength for next spring.

But the time spent looking forward to asparagus, the pleasure of anticipation, makes the enjoyment of asparagus even more special.

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