Monday, May 01, 2006

asparagus in Alsace

Every 1st of May, my thoughts turn towards asparagus. It was my first taste of Strasbourg where we were to make a home for five years and also the month of May, the time I would choose to return to it.

I arrived solo, my husband's departure from Boston being held up, to spend the first few nights alone in our new apartment near the Orangerie. Not knowing a soul and speaking hardly a word of French, the first thing I did was to set out in search of something to eat. By chance I happened upon a sleepy epicerie, miraculously open on the national holiday. I bought a bagful of stray asparagus stalks, not knowing that white asparagus, unlike green, need to be peeled before being cooked. As a result the lower parts were too tough to eat and I ended up making a meal of soft mushy heads.

As subsequent May Days came and went I came to learn a thing or two about les asperges. That the pale asparagus, as thick as your thumb, are abundantly produced in the region of Alsace and make their first appearance in markets around May. That they should be peeled and trimmed and tied up with string into a bundle. That they should be cooked standing in a tall pot with their purple-tinged heads sticking out of the salted water, a pinch of sugar added. That steaming spears should be eaten with fingers, dipped in a sauce of Hollandaise or vinaigrette. Or served dozen to a person in the company of jambon cuit.

Before leaving Strasbourg I went to the poterie on a narrow street behind the majestic cathedral, a tiny hole-in-the wall place packed with ceramics produced in the village of Souffleheim. The potters are known for their hand-painted wares, in particular the oblong-shaped lidded terrines for making baeckoffe.* What caught my eye though was an asparagus dish, a two-part vessel with the top plate punctured with small holes.

Most such dishes intended solely for the purpose of serving asparagus tend to be porcelain mimicries of the vegetable's form and color. This plate was a simple oval shape in warm ochre with a lovely crackled surface under the translucent glaze. I purchased it as a souvenir of Strasbourg and to remind me of the ethereal quality of May, of that special lull, that langorous anticipation of beautiful days to come.

*To make the Alsatian specialty: Marinate in a bottle of local wine (Sylvaner is good; save your Reisling to make coq au Reisling and Gewurztraminer for the foie gras) chunks of pork, beef and lamb (about 500g each) with chopped leeks, onion and bay leaf. The next day slice potatoes (about 1.5kg) and layer the rounds with the marinade in a 6-person terrine. Mix flour with water to make a pasty braid and work it around the lid to hermetically seal the pot. Let it sit in a low temperature oven for about 6 hours. Instructions by Madame Mahler at Poterie d'Alsace, 3 rue des Freres, 67000 Strasbourg, (03) 88-32-23-21.


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