Lifestyle & Culture

Move over, Pablo Escobar: How asparagus got caught up in South American drug dealing

Why is asparagus, the ancient royal vegetable, so cheap and available?Geopolitics and cocaine.

Asparagus is so labor-intensive and sought-after it is known as the royal vegetable. They have been immortalized by Egyptians in wall paintings, foraged by Ancient Greeks in the name of love, collected by Caesar’s soldiers and grown by King Louis XVI at Versailles.

Just thirty years ago Americans paid triple for them.

So how come asparagus is now universally cheap and globally available? Well, it all has to do with geopolitics and cocaine.

How it all went down:

Troubles started when the United States government chose to subsidize Peruvian farming. Pull up your cocaine producing coca plants and replace them with asparagus. Humm, current average retail price for a kilo of asparagus: around $6, current average retail price for a kilo of cocaine: $1,800-$30,000 (Colombia/NYC respectively).

Sounds like a good idea:

Developing an alternative to growing coca seemed smart at the time (early 1990s), but studies showed that the program was illogical. In Peru,the coca leaf is grown in the highlands and asparagus is grown near sea level. Even so, U.S. aid and research assistance was given to the country in order to develop a solid infrastructure to export the product.

Here is the kicker:

The Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act devastated the American asparagus industry by undercutting U.S. asparagus farmers. Massive exports from Peru changed world consumption altering the economy for the product in China and Europe as well as the U.S. and other parts of the world.

It gets worse:

This went on for 15 years. The New York Times estimated the 1991 trade act cost the United States around $60 million per year (close to 1 billion dollars in total).

The upside:

Americans (and the rest of the world) are now eating lots of readily available asparagus. Fresh, frozen, canned, you name it: albeit mostly Peruvian grown (and formerly supported by American taxpayers).

I can’t help it. I still love asparagus. After all they are nutrient-rich, help maintain blood pressure, regulate blood sugar and protect the liver. So go out and get your asparagus on!

Shopping, cooking, eating:

To get the most tender and sweet of the crop, select compact, tightly closed tips and firmstalks. Avoid ones with opening tips or stems that look dry or wrinkled.

Preparation methods for asparagus

Pencil thick: snap off the bottom third.

Thicker (typically white/pink): peel the bottoms. Lay them on a work surface, hold the stalk mid way down and peel off the thick outer layer. Trim the bottom inch to remove woody part.

Photo by Alice Verberne
  • Steaming: tasty, more labor/equipment
    Retains delicate flavor profile, color and nutrients
    Works for thick and thin types
    Place in steamer rack set over boiling water. Cover and steam 4-8 minutes depending on
    thickness.
  • Blanch/boil: medium time and equipment
    Method used by many restaurants
    Loses nutrients, flavor and color, risk of water-logging
    Works for thick and thin types
    Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, drop in and cook 1-4 minutes depending on
    thickness, transfer to ice water bath to set color and stop cooking. Pat dry.
  • Grill: tasty, more labor/equipment/time
    Loss of color (browns), retains grassy flavor adding a smoky profile
    Best for pencil thin asparagus
    Coat asparagus in oil, place on grill perpendicular to the grates. Grill 10 minutes, turning
    from time to time. Top with salt and lemon juice.
  • Microwave: fast, simple, less equipment
    Similar to steaming but loses some color and nutrients
    Works for thick and thin types
    Place on plate, add 2 tablespoons of water, cover, cook on high 2-3 minutes, let stand an
    equal amount of time and check for doneness by piercing with a fork. Repeat until al
    dente.
  • Panned: fast and simple, less equipment
    Loss of some color, nutrients
    Best for pencil thin asparagus
    Melt butter over high in skillet, add asparagus, cover and cook about ten minutes shaking
    the pan until browned and tender.
  • Oven: medium time, less equipment
    Loss of color
    Best for pencil thin asparagus
    Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, place asparagus on pan, drizzle with oil and pop
    into oven cooking for eight to ten minutes or until brown and tender.
  • Stir-fry: fast and simple, less equipment
    Loss of some color, retains nutrients, nutty, grassy flavor
    Best for pencil thin asparagus, cut in 2-inch lengths
    Heat wok/skillet with oil on high. Stir-fry 3-5 minutes, until tender, browned on edges.

Asparagus soup:

Cut and trim two pounds of asparagus, sauté 5 minutes over medium heat in 2 T. butter.

Add 2 cups vegetable broth, simmer 10 minutes then puree with immersion blender. 

Stir in ½ cup cream, salt and pepper to taste.

  • Preserved in vinegar: more labor/equipment/time
    Loss of color, flavor, texture
    Enjoy year round in cocktails or with charcuterie (shar-koo-tree)
    For recipe, (Allrecipes.com)
  • Asparagus can be marinated, juiced, made into sorbet, custard or risotto, wrapped in ham
    or bacon, among other preparation methods. They are oftentimes served cold with
    vinaigrette (see below) and grated hard-boiled eggs
    or hot with melted butter or hollandaise.
    Hollandaise sauce has the reputation of being troublesome since it breaks easily and uses
    expensive ingredients. One way around this problem is to make hollandaise like
    mayonnaise.
  • Cheaters Hollandaise Sauce (mayonnaise style)
    Put 2 egg yolks in a blender and add 1 T lemon juice, a pinch of salt and pepper. Melt ½
    cup butter in the microwave. Blend the egg mixture thirty seconds and add the melted
    butter in a thin stream. It should thicken immediately. You can keep it hot in a water bath
    until ready to serve. This method may also be done with a bowl and whisk.
  • Quick Vinaigrette
    Place 2 tablespoons vinegar (of choice or lemon/orange juice), 1/3-cup oil (peanut, colza,
    sunflower, olive or avocado), 1 teaspoon French mustard, salt and pepper (to taste) in a
    small screw-top jar. Shake until combined. Optional: add 1 Tablespoon fresh herbs
    (tarragon, dill, chives or basil).
  • Wine & Asparagus pairings
    Look for crisp refreshing white wines
    French (crisp): Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris
    Italian (crisp): Pinot Grigio
    Spain: Albarino grape varieties, Verdejo, Airen
    Portugal: Vinho Verde
    German (aromatic): Gewüztraminer, Riesling
    Sparkling: Champagne, Cava, Prosecco
  • Avoid: wines with tannins, oak aged and most red wine

Foraging

In search of wild asparagus? Wild asparagus can be found near the sea since they tolerate higher amounts of salt than many other plants. Consumed for over 2,000 years, they are native to the Mediterranean seaside of Europe and Asia. My Middle Eastern friends forage them along the coast of Lebanon, and my Italian friends find them on the plains between the Dolomite Mountains and the Adriatic Sea.

Experts say that asparagus prefer sunny spots and hang out with wild mustard, hemlock and ticks. And by the way, don’t eat the berries that form on the female asparagus plants, since they are poisonous.

It is easier to find the asparagus plant after it has died back in the fall. Look for “Big Bird” a six foot-tall canary yellow stalk with fronds similar to fennel or dill. Mark the spot and return next spring. Hank Shaw at honest-food.net says check the base for triangular leaf scars resembling an asparagus spear. Once you find the location of one plant, stop and look around. There should be more in the area.

Cutting asparagus will encourage more production (to a point). Don’t get greedy. Leave several spears to grow out or risk killing the plant. In the spring asparagus typically send up a set of skinny spears first, then fat ones, then finishes with skinny ones.

Planting tips for asparagus

A bundle of asparagus may cost you about 4 euros, but 25 years of research and development probably went into it.

This herbaceous perennial grows in saline alkaline soil and takes three years (from seed to harvest) to establish. They typically produce 10-15 years. Purchase established plants from suppliers offering the name Jersey for high-yield male plants. Varieties with the name Martha produce male and female plants in the mix.

Females give fewer asparagus due to the fact that they also produce berries. When planting seeds, you’ll get an even mix of both male and female while commercially grown plants are typically male. Farmers typically spend about $3,000 to $10,000 per acre to start-up an asparagus field (depending on the country and conditions).

Whites (spargel) are one of the most labor intensive to grow since every spear is hand-picked just as the tip begins to show through the surface of the soil (that has been hand mounded around the plant). When picking, dig to a depth of nine inches and clip the base, place asparagus in a dark box to keep them white. Interestingly, white asparagus turn pink when exposed to the sun. Asparagus are one of the first corps harvested in the spring representing a transition from frozen winter and its root vegetables to the abundance and newness of spring.

About that pee issue

Asparagusic acid is a sulfurous byproduct that makes urine smell strong after a person consumes asparagus. Some people can detect it and others can’t.

About the author:

Alice Verberne is a freelance artist and writer who purchased the École des Vatelottes in 1999. The historic building is located three hours southeast of Paris in the rural hilltop village of Bourmont, France. Her mission is to create an atelier as a meeting point to connect visitors to local artisans. She works as a consultant for GB Marketing Research Solutions writing feasibility studies for entrepreneurs.

See all of Alice’s posts here.

See more about France on Dispatches here.

See her posts about wine here.

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