Flemish Asparagus ©The Flemish Primitives (2011)
Emma Thomson

Emma Thomson

  • Job: Freelance travel writer and author of Flanders: The Bradt Travel Guide
  • Favorite destination: Belgium
  • Likes:Travel writer, editor, broadcaster, photographer

Emma discovers what the Belgians call their 'white gold' on a visit to Leo's asparagus farm in Kinrooi.

June

White asparagus

“When the weather is sunny, asparagus can grow 10–15cm a day!” beams Leo. “A day, eh!” he repeats proudly. He has ‘farmer’ literally written all over him with field-sunned skin, hands engrained with dirt and a wide grin that spreads across his salt-and-pepper stubbled jaw.

Asparagus Company Henckens-Snijkers

White asparagus, or witte asperges, is one of Flanders’ most distinctive foodie specialties. These thumb-thick stalks are the star of seasonal menus from late April to June, and the region’s very best are cultivated in Kinrooi – a one-street hamlet in a far-eastern nook of Flanders, barely 2 miles from the Dutch border.

Harvesting white asparagus

We’ve driven out to one of Leo’s fields and he’s standing beside neat 100-metre long mounds of earth covered in black, plastic sheeting.

“White asparagus and green asparagus are exactly the same”, he continues. “The only difference is we cover our asparagus with earth. Without seeing the sun, they can’t...erm, turn green.” “Ah, they can’t photosynthesize!” I interject. “Yes! And if they do poke through the soil, the tips turn blue – these ones are less valuable,” he adds, looking a little sad at the thought of those penny-pinching blue tips.

“Why is Kinrooi the best place to grow asparagus?” I ask to cheer him up. “To grow asperges you need loose ground, otherwise they grow bent.” “And, no man likes a bent asparagus,” I tease. He lets out a cheeky chuckle.

Harvesting white asparagus

“See that dip in the top of the soil? Look!” he says, plunging two fingers into the ground and pulling away the earth. Sure enough he reveals a white finger. He takes a long thin blade, sticks it into the dirt, flicks his wrist, and up comes a long, perfectly white, asparagus stem. “It’s back-breaking work,” he admits.

“What’s your favourite way of eating them?” I ask. “Oooo...most people just make soup, but there are so many ways...” Leo ponders, rubbing his chin. “Aa-ha! With Hollandaise sauce,” he says, pointing his muddied finger in the air with excitement.

Washing and cleaning white asparagus

We return to the farm and Leo shows me their five-man processing plant tucked under a wing of the barn.

He points to three large silver vats. “After harvesting, they’re soaked in cold water for eight hours overnight to keep them fresh. Then they’re cut, cleaned and sorted into classes. We have five sizes: C is the thinnest at 12mm, then B (12–16mm), A (16–22mm), AA (22–28mm), and Turbo. Within each size, there are four categories: white-straight, white-bent, blue-straight, and blue-bent. The white-straight are the most expensive."

Dish with white asparagus

I drive back into town to ‘De Spaanjerd’, one of the local brasseries serving a special Aspergesmenu. First, a salty soup with tips floating on top like icebergs, then ham-wrapped chicken aboard a raft of five white asparagus – the first-class straight-white variety I notice, putting my training into practice.

Info

Henckens-Snijkers asparagus farm (Kessenicherweg 27, 3640 Kinrooi; tel: +32494871791) is offering free tours until the end of June at 11.00, 14.00 and 15.00, and you can buy freshly picked bundles from their farm shop (Mon–Sat 09.00–15.00, Sun 09.00–12.00) for €5/kilo. De Spaanjerd restaurant (Maasstraat 84, 3640 Kinrooi; tel: +3289562146; open daily 11:00–21:30) serves a 2-course asparagus menu until end of June for € 19,7 euro's.

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