Farmers busy tending to Flanders’ white gold

Summary

Every week, Flanders Today surveys the world of local cuisine to fill you in on the best recipes for authentic dishes, not-to-miss culinary events and special eateries. This week: asparagus

Robyn Boyle on Flemish food and drink

Traditionally, from April until the Feast of Saint John on 24 June, asparagus season is in full force in Flanders. As the spears shoot towards the surface of their raised beds, farmers take great care to prevent exposure to the sunlight that would turn their stems from milky white to grass green.

They know the optimal moment for culling, cutting the vegetable with one swipe of their razor-sharp knives, a task that can only be performed by hand due to the plant’s fragile nature.

Loose sandy soil is the natural habitat of the asparagus. It grows there easily, setting down claw-like roots in rows of raised soil kept at just the right temperature. Growing asparagus calls for a healthy dose of patience, as the vegetable can only be harvested from the third year of growth.

Even the ancient Romans were fond of asparagus, using clay pots on top of their crops to keep them white. The first spears of the “white gold” were cultivated in Flanders in the area of Ghent around 1880. Shortly thereafter, Mechelen became the centre of asparagus cultivation. These days, Flanders has numerous asparagus farmers, mostly in the provinces of Limburg, Antwerp and Flemish Brabant.

Don’t forget to peel

Several growers around the region run shops where you can go buy your asparagus (and other specialities) straight from the farm. They include Bossuyt in Oostrozebeke, West Flanders, La Vrijsen in Herk-de-Stad and Kamerijckhoeve in Gingelom, both in Limburg.

Try to buy spears that are similar in size so they all have the same cooking time. For a main course, it’s best to use nice-looking straight spears. For asparagus that’s going into a soup, sauce or quiche, appearance is less important. The taste is all the same, but the price can vary greatly.

White asparagus spears are fresh if they make a squeaky sound when rubbed together. To prepare them, use a vegetable peeler to remove the hard outer layer starting from just below the tip and moving down toward the base of the stalk.

Asparagus is great steamed, or you can boil it in plenty of water with a pinch of salt for about 10 minutes – until they’re tender but still al dente. A tall, narrow asparagus cooking pot is ideal for keeping the delicate tips just above the surface of the boiling water, to avoid overcooking them.

The list of dishes using asparagus is endless. The classic treatment is op Vlaamse wijze, or Flemish style, topped with melted butter, chopped parsley and hard-boiled egg. Otherwise, butter (often available farm-fresh at those same shops), smoked salmon, new potatoes, quail eggs, samphire and any delicate white fish all go well with asparagus.

Flemish agriculture and horticulture

Flanders is an important global food exporter. The main agricultural activities differ from region to region – with pig, cow, vegetable and dairy-farming the most important. In recent years, the sector has been heavily affected by the economic downturn and falling global food prices.
Green - Organic farming accounts for just a fraction of Flemish agriculture, but the sector has slowly been growing in recent years.
Greenhouse - Flanders has been a trailblazer in mapping the carbon footprint of agriculture.
Forgotten - Flemish horticulture’s “Bel’Orta” label aims to promote lesser-known vegetables like parsnip, parsley root and kohlrabi.
90

percent of Belgium’s fruit harvest comes from Flanders

25 982

agriculture businesses in Flanders in 2011

51 530

people employed in Flemish agriculture and horticulture in 2011