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Asparagus - That's Asparagi

First, Some Asparagus Background

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Asparagus: Fresh for the Picking

Asparagus: Fresh for the Picking

© Kyle Phillips licensed to About.com
Already know the background?
Selecting and Preparing Asparagus, and Italian asparagus recipes.

I occasionally get requests for dishes enjoyed by the Romans or other Ancient Italic peoples. The answer isn't as easy as one might think, for two reasons:
  • First, all sorts of ingredients we now take for granted, and even consider definitively Italian, for example the tomato sauce we put over pasta and pizza, were unknown at the time. As were potatoes and peppers, and even cherries if one goes back far enough -- they were introduced to Western Europe by the Roman general Lucullus (110-57 BC), who tried them in Asia Minor and brought them home with him.
  • The other reason that it's difficult to say what the average person might have enjoyed is that we don't have much in the way of recipes.
It is true that several cookbooks have survived, the best known of which is De Obsoniis et Condimentis Sive Arte Coquinari, a compilation an unknown author shrewdly attributed to Celio Apicio, a renowned gourmand who lived during the reign of Tiberius (the trick worked and the book proved a huge success). However, they were aimed at the aristocracy, who could afford luxuries beyond the purses of common folk, and also could afford cooks to prepare the luxuries. Since the cooks knew what they were doing in the kitchen, and presumably knew their masters' tastes, cookbook authors of the time primarily listed the ingredients and the steps that were unusual, figuring that the cook would take care of the obvious.

For example (this is modern, not Roman), lightly salting the water before blanching a green vegetable to preserve the pretty green color.

Chroniclers do discuss what the general public ate, but rarely give detailed instructions on preparation. Therefore, there's lots of conjecture and little hard fact.

We do however know that one Roman expression for getting something done quickly was do it in the time it takes to cook asparagus. So they ate it cooked quickly. Exactly what went on it likely depended upon the taste of the particular Roman. Because of its pronounced flavor asparagus has a way of dominating a dish made with it, and consequently seasonings tend to be light, lest they clash.

The standard simple modern Tuscan way of seasoning freshly boiled asparagus, for example, is with salt and a good drizzle of extravirgin olive oil, and many Romans probably ate it like this too. Or they may have preferred the Venetian seasoning, which is a sauce made by grinding a hard-boiled egg with melted unsalted butter, and seasoning the mixture with salt, pepper and (if you like it) a little freshly minced thyme.

Having said all this, a few words about asparagus. Though the Romans valued it highly, and especially liked that grown in the sandy soils around Ravenna, in Emilia Romagna, it subsequently passed from favor, and only began attracting attention again in the 1700s, when the farmers of Argenteuil, northwest of Paris, began cultivating it with care. Word of the rediscovered vegetable spread rapidly and soon others took up cultivation too; in Italy Piemonte proved especially suitable, though it is also grown (and prized) most everywhere.

Selecting and Preparing Asparagus | Italian Asparagus Recipes

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