A few weeks ago I wrote about artichokes as they appeared in book published between 1699-1938, and it seems that many of you enjoyed the historical insight. I thought I would do something similar today, on the topic of asparagus.
The word ‘asparagus’ first appears in written English (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) in the sixteenth century – although undoubtedly it was in use well before that time. The first two reference quotes given by the OED are mini-histories on asparagus linguistics and lore in themselves:
1548: W. Turner Names of Herbes sig. B.iijv, Asparagus..of the Poticaries [apothecaries] sparagus, in Englishe Sperage, in Duche Spargen, in French Esperage.
1572: J. Bossewell Wks. Armorie iii. f. 19, Some reporte..that of Rammes hornes buried, or hidde in the grounde, is broughte forthe an Herbe, called Asparagus, in Englishe, Sperage.
So, it used to be thought that burying a ram’s horn in the ground would bring forth asparagus – I had no idea of that interesting little factoid, did you?.
I began my artichoke piece with John Evelyn’s Acetaria: A discourse of Sallets, published in 1699, and will do the same today with asparagus. Evelyn includes the method of brief cooking by blanching in boiling water – still the best method, I am sure you will agree.
Sparagus, Asparagus (ab Asperitate) temperately hot, and moist; Cordial, Diuretic, easie of Digestion, and next to Flesh, nothing more nourishing, as Sim. Sethius, an excellent Physician holds. They are sometimes, but very seldom, eaten raw with Oyl, and Vinegar; but with more delicacy (the bitterness first exhausted) being so speedily boil'd, as not to lose the verdure and agreeable tenderness; which is done by letting the Water boil, before you put them in. I do not esteem the Dutch great and larger sort (especially rais'd by the rankness of the Beds) so sweet and agreeable, as those of a moderate size.
And now I leap ahead only a few decades to 1737, to three much more complex recipes featuring asparagus, from The Complete family-piece; and, country gentleman, and farmer's, best guide (London, 1737.)
To make Asparagus Soop.
Take twelve Pounds of lean Beef, cut in slices ; then put a quarter of a Pound of Butter in a Stew-pan over the Fire, and put your Beef in; let it boil up quick till it begins to brown; then put in a Pint of brown Ale, and a gallon of Water, and cover it close, and let it stew gently for an Hour and half; put in what Spice you like in the stewing, and strain out the Liquor, and scum osf all the Fat; then put in some Vermicelly, and some Sallery wash'd and cut small, half a hundred of Asparagus cut small, and Palates boiled tender and cut; put all these in, and let them boil gently till tender. Just as 'tis going up, fry a handful of Spinage in Butter, and throw in a French Roll.
To stew Pigeons with Asparagus.
Draw your Pigeons, and wrap up a little shred Parsley, with a very few Blades of Thyme, some Salt and Pepper in a Piece of Butter, put some in the Belly, and some in the Neck, and tie up the Vent and the Neck, and half roast them ; then have some strong Broth and Gravy, put them together in a Stew-pan; stew the Pigeons till they are full enough; then have Tops of Asparagus boiled tender, and put them in, and let them have a Walm or two in the Gravy, and dish it up.
To pickle Asparagus.
Gather your Asparagus, and lay them in an earthen Pot; make a Brine of Water and Salt strong enough to bear an Egg, and pour it hot on them, keep it close-covered; when you use them hot, lay them in cold Water for two Hours, then boil and butter them for the Table, and if you use them as a Pickle, boil them and lay them in Vinegar.