Mar./Apr. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photo by Matt Salvo
Delta farmers dish about their favorite springtime vegetable.
More online: Recipes
Long before the sun comes up and warms the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, asparagus farmers Marc and Paul Marchini are in their fields near Stockton. The brothers are busy directing crews as they quickly harvest and pack what has been called the "world's most elegant vegetable." They time each day's harvest, cutting the individual spears at the moment of peak perfection.
The Marchinis carry on a family tradition with deep roots in the delta. The family began growing asparagus in the 1930s after Paul and Marc's great-grandfather immigrated to the area from Italy.
Asparagus is a hands-on crop, as brothers Marc, left, and Paul Marchini demonstrate.
Along with the popular green spears, the family grows grapes, alfalfa, corn and tomatoes. And the next generation is already helping cultivate and sell the shapely crop, with grandchildren tagging along to learn the latest asparagus-farming practices.
"Growing asparagus is a bit like sculpting," Paul Marchini said. "It's a hands-on crop from start to finish—from cutting the spears in the field to washing, sorting and packing for market. Very little of the work is done by machines."
New plant types and better farming techniques have enhanced asparagus farming, according to Cherie Watte Angulo of the California Asparagus Commission.
"These days, it takes less farmland to produce the same amount of asparagus, but the need for intense labor and attention to even the tiniest detail in growing and harvesting has increased," she said.
The state's three major asparagus-growing areas are the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Salinas Valley and the western San Joaquin Valley, near Firebaugh. Those areas supply most of the western United States, with additional supplies coming from Michigan and Washington to help satisfy the nation's appetite for the tender stalks.
While harvest season lasts only about 60 to 90 days in each area, California's wide range of microclimates helps provide fresh asparagus from January through May, with a small amount in September and October. Spring is peak season.
Asparagus is graded, sized and packed in sheds like the Marchinis', located near the fields to assure maximum freshness. Spears are clipped to about 9 inches in length, which is what supermarkets sell.
Then the spears are typically bundled into 1-pound bunches, containing 10 to 12 spears, and placed into 30-pound crates specially designed for safe transport.
With a box of just-picked asparagus under his arm, Paul Marchini heads for his truck and the short drive home for lunch.
"I love asparagus and eat it every day when we're harvesting," he said.
Frequently Asked Questions
What's the difference between white and green asparagus?
It's all about sunshine. When spears emerge from the ground, sunlight turns the stalks green. To get white spears, dirt is piled on top of the plants so stalks grow underground. After tips break the soil surface, workers use a special knife to cut the stalk underground before it sees daylight. Purple asparagus, an Italian cultivar known as Violetto d'Albenga, is a sweeter, more-tender cousin to green and white varieties, and is often used in salads.
How fast does asparagus grow?
About 7 inches in a day under optimal conditions. Beds are cut every day, sometimes more, during the average 70 to 80 days of peak harvest.
Where's it grown?
About 70 percent of the nation's domestic fresh asparagus comes from California, with about half of that grown in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. However, America's growing appetite for the vegetable is being met increasingly by international imports. If you want to eat closer to home, look for California-grown asparagus.
How to eat it
Whether to use fingers or fork depends on how asparagus is prepared and served. Etiquette experts say grilled or steamed spears served whole can be eaten with the fingers. If served with a sauce or cut up, use knife and fork. When in doubt, cut spears into bite-sized pieces.
Thick or thin—what's the difference?
Some people mistakenly believe that thick asparagus is old. Truth is, thick spears come from younger, more vigorous plants, while thinner ones come from older or more closely spaced plantings.
Does asparagus have to be replanted each year?
The fern-like plant, often referred to informally as "grass" because of its feathery fronds before harvest, is a semi-perennial member of the lily family. It takes about three years to produce edible spears and can maintain commercial production levels for 10 to 15 years. After that, fields need a rest before being replanted to asparagus.
Sources: California Asparagus Commission, California Department of Food and Agriculture, San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner
Take the test:
- What plant family does asparagus belong to?
- Why is asparagus called the "food of kings"?
- In what country is asparagus eaten candied?
- What does the word "asparagus" mean?
- Where is asparagus from?
- Does asparagus have medicinal benefits?
- When was asparagus first grown in California?
- What is the longest asparagus spear ever found?
- What does "velocius quam asparagi coquantur" mean?
- When did the first trainload of California asparagus head east?
- King Louis XIV of France was so fond of asparagus, he ate it year-round
- In Greek, it means "shoot" or "spear"
- Origin is uncertain, but cultivation began more than 2,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean
- Ancient Greeks and Romans used it for bee stings, heart ailments and toothaches
- 1852 in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
- 11.5 feet, according to Guinness World Records
- "Quicker than you can cook asparagus," a favorite saying in Latin of Roman Emperor Augustus
- August 1900
Roasted, steamed, grilled or boiled?
Versatile asparagus lends itself to a variety of cooking methods and menus.
- Select the size asparagus that best suits your needs. Thicker spears are ideal for grilling or roasting, while thinner spears can be cut on the bias and added to stir-fries or a frittata.
- Brighten steamed asparagus by squeezing a fresh lemon over the top of the spears.
- Chives, parsley, chervil, savory, tarragon and other herbs or spices melted into butter are delicious when drizzled over asparagus. Other go-to toppings include sour cream, yogurt and mayonnaise.
- For easy, fun grilling, skewer several spears with bamboo skewers to make a "raft."
- Toss asparagus in olive oil, crushed garlic, salt and pepper, and roast. Serve as is or with reduced balsamic syrup.
- Medium, dry white wines are best with asparagus. Look for chenin blanc, fumé blanc or French colombard.
- For more tips and recipes, visit www.calasparagus.com.
A few more tips from the pros
- When buying asparagus, plan on about 8 ounces for each serving.
- To keep asparagus fresh for two to three days, wrap in a wet paper towel inside a plastic bag and store in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. For longer storage, stand the spears, cut end down, in about an inch of water. Cover with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated.
- To separate the tender stems from the white, fibrous stalk, bend the stalks until the white ends snap off. The breaking point is where stalks are naturally tender.
- Asparagus cooks quickly and will continue to cook for 30 to 60 seconds, so be sure to remove the spears from the heat before you think they are done. The most important rule is not to overcook. Spears should be tender, but still slightly crisp.
Mmm… asparagus recipes!
Versatile asparagus can be cooked on the stovetop or microwave, in a frying pan or steamer, or stir-fried, roasted or grilled. Here are a few of our favorite recipes from the California Bountiful archives:
Fresh from the farm
Be sure to look for California-grown asparagus at your local grocery store or farmers market. You can also order it online through Stockton-based Mister Spear: www.misterspear.com.