“Cut them down at the base but don’t touch the other spears,” instructs Julie Johnston of Johnston Farms. Julie, her husband Bill with their two daughters Sarah and Emma run the farm market asparagus patch on their Vineland farm. I was there for an asparagus-picking lesson and got the experience of a lifetime.
As we crouched down in the sandy soil I noticed that an asparagus harvest is quite different than others. I’m used to full, lush, green plants bearing ripe fruit or vegetables. Just the thought of it makes me feel good. But an asparagus patch at harvest looks rather lifeless, baron, brown and dry. All you can see is flat brown earth, a bit of dead, dried foliage trampled down and army green coloured spikes sticking up from the ground here and there in loose patches. Not a pretty sight – relatively speaking. But this, is the love of Julie’s life.
Norfolk County, particularly the area around Simcoe is asparagus headquarters in Ontario, but did you know it was once Niagara? Yes, in the mid 40’s Niagara was full of flourishing asparagus patches. From Niagara-on-the-Lake to Grimsby, every inch of sandy soil was reserved for asparagus. Then disease hit and it hit hard. The ground was stripped of asparagus and no asparagus was to be grown for at least 20 years. Farmers were encouraged to plant peaches. After all, peaches thrive in sandy soil just like asparagus. So 10 years went by, but by that time the fate of asparagus had already been sealed and no one wanted to give up peaches for asparagus.
That is until 10-years ago, when the Johnston family thought it might be a good idea to grow asparagus. Thank goodness, because they are one of the few farms I know of that grow and sell asparagus in Niagara.
Almost all of the spears grow straight and tall, but Julie points out a disfigured one. “This is what happens when you’re not careful picking” frowns Julie, snapping it from its base, she handed it to me.
Now if anyone’s ever eaten asparagus raw from the supermarket, you know it tastes horrible – just like grass. But Julie was as insistent as she was proud.
I bit into the thick, green spear with a crunch that reminded me of crispy pickles. The spear spit in my mouth and my eyes opened wide as the flavour of just-picked sweet garden peas spread across my palate. It was dense, clean, and crisp with a lightness of a summer’s day and a hint of earthy grass on the aftertaste to remind me it was indeed asparagus. It was exciting and delicious!
Asparagus explains Bill is one of the fastest deteriorating vegetables there is. Once picked, they begin to deteriorate rapidly and their sweet summer flavour is quickly overshadowed by asparagus’ traditional grassiness. You loose the whole essence of what asparagus really is.
It’s asparagus season so drive out to Johnston Farm, 3135 Tallman Drive in Vineland for a bundle. They’re cut in the morning for your dinner that evening. Just remember, no cooking or fancy sauces. Use them as finger food and enjoy. These are the life-long memories Ontario agriculture brings to our tables. Here’s my favourite way to enjoy fresh spring asparagus.
Asparagus with Chili Vinaigrette
1 bundle just-harvested asparagus
4 tablespoons (60 mL) unsalted farm fresh butter
2 garden spring onions, sliced
1/2 small hot red pepper, seeded and minced
1 small garlic clove, minced
salt and freshly cracked black pepper
extra long garlic chives
Wash asparagus well under running water and snap off the tough ends. In a large skillet, add asparagus and 1-inch of salted water. Bring to a boil and cook for 30 seconds longer, or more depending on the thickness of the spears and if you like your asparagus al dente or well cooked. Immediately plunge into ice water. Let chill for 2 minutes, then drain and set aside.
Soak garlic chives in water for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan. Then carefully pour into a clean saucepan, leaving the milk solids behind. Add spring onions, hot pepper and garlic to the clarified butter and warm over very low heat for 3 minutes.
Tie the cooked asparagus in one bundle with garlic chives. Puddle the onion butter on a serving plate and lay the bundle of asparagus over top. To eat, dip the spears into the onion butter. Serves 6