Village-Neuf, France – We stood at the border of tarp-covered asparagus crops, sipping Pinot Blanc wine and nibbling savory cake, while an accordion player played tunes familiar to everyone but me.
No one seemed to mind afternoon traffic that careened along a main artery of this northeastern French town, which borders the Rhine, less than two miles across the bridge from Germany. After all, the party’s main event was meant for public display.
Clad in 19th century black tricorn hats, grey frock coats and white gloves, a half a dozen, mostly elderly members of The Brotherhood of Asparagus of Village-Neuf paraded between long rows of mounded dirt, stopping at an uncovered patch. Their queen – a young waitress from a prestigious three-star Michelin restaurant – bent forward in a shiny, blue evening gown. Lowering her tiara-topped head, she plunged a gouge into the dirt, and pulled out a fat, cream-colored asparagus spear.
Newspaper cameras clicked. The small crowd laughed. The accordion music resumed. I had witnessed the so-called first picking of the 2014 season – and my first premier piquage ever.
Until relocating to the southern edge of France’s Alsace region six years ago, I had only seen white asparagus sold in bottles, unceremoniously shelved among canned goods in American grocery stores.
I’ve since learned that during the April-through-June harvest – always done by hand – no vegetable gets treated with more pomp in this farming community than the white asparagus.
In May, there’s a Brotherhood inauguration dinner, a weekend peeling demonstration, and an open house. My favorite is the late season asparagus walk (in June), a two-hour affair that starts at mid-morning. For eight euros, you get a shot glass embossed with an asparagus plant, plus ample wine and asparagus hors d’oeuvres during stops for planting and picking instruction.
Having taken an oath to “defend and promote” the vegetable, the Brotherhood even sent a delegation to Monaco in late April to induct Prince Albert II during an asparagus dinner. By virtue of his title of Count of Ferrette, which was a prominent medieval town during the Habsburg rule, the Prince already has ties to southern Alsace. Still, persuading the royal to join this clan of 250 active members couldn’t have been easy – unless he’s particularly fond of the meaty, slightly sweet and nutty spear that is milder and thicker than its green cousin.
“The barber for the Prince the past 25 years is from Mulhouse (Alsace’s second largest city), and also president of Monaco’s Alsatian club,” confided André Icard, the Brotherhood’s grand maître since 2000 and co-author of three of its asparagus cookbooks.
As one of eight founding members in 1985, Icard plans such events with his 15-member council – comprised of restaurant owners, village mayors, farmers and asparagus lovers. Each paid up to 950 euros for the elaborate costume and a silver asparagus medallion, which designates that after five years of service, the member passed the taste test – differentiating an asparagus picked in the morning from one in the afternoon.
One could argue that’s a lot of fanfare for a vegetable. After all, other French regions produce white asparagus, which grows under cover to avoid sunlight, and requires more peeling before cooking because of its tougher, bitter skin. Popular throughout Europe, it’s farmed in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece, among others. The world’s top asparagus exporting country, Peru, ships to the United States, where the green variety is more common.
Yet loyalists insist that much like a Grand cru wine, Village-Neuf asparagus has a taste of terroir that distinguishes it, even from its closest neighbors.
“It’s the soil here that’s different, it’s sandier, it makes the asparagus more savoureuse” (tasty), said Herbert Schilling, who buys the spears for his upscale restaurant, Alte Stadtmühle, in Schopfheim, Germany, 15 miles east of here. “My clients know the difference, and they prefer Village-Neuf.”
Given its humble roots, it’s no wonder this town of 3,900 inhabitants revels in the fame. In 1679, French King Louis XIV had ordered construction of an elaborate fortress along the Rhine in Huningue, to prevent invasions through neighboring Basel, Switzerland. To compensate displaced fishermen and farmers, he gave them land a few miles north on the river, creating a “new village” – Village-Neuf.
Later, after the construction of the Huningue Canal in the 1820s, farmers discovered the alluvial plain that had once been covered by the Rhine produced the area’s best vegetables – more than half of which they’d cart five miles south to the Basel market as late as the 1970s. While the sandiest soil bears the best asparagus, a farmer must wait three years before the first harvest, and start over in a new location every 10 years – reasons that factor into the vegetable’s high price ($12 a kilo today). But finding customers has never been a problem.
“They used to say Village-Neuf was the vegetable garden for the people of Basel,” said Village-Neuf mayor Bernard Tritsch.
And in spring, it’s often their dining table, with white asparagus as the main course. From the 1950s until the late 1990s, Village-Neuf’s top four restaurants often limited lunch clients to one hour, with service at 11, noon and 1, to keep up with demand. Busloads of international diners would show up until midnight during Baselworld, a week-long international luxury watch and jewelry exposition that was traditionally held in April each year, until moving to March in 2000.
Today, there’s still a steady flow of regular Swiss and German customers, who according to locals, aren’t interested in haute-cuisine variations of the white spears. The most popular dish is the 29-euro, 700-gram serving – simply cooked in simmering water until tender, accompanied by mayonnaise, a vinaigrette sauce and a side of ham.
“You come to Village-Neuf, that’s what you expect,” said Laurette Martin. As fourth-generation owners of Au Cerf, she and her husband Pascal raise the bar by also offering a 39€, four-course menu that includes a slice of their foie gras de canard et oie (duck and goose liver) as a starter, and an elaborate strawberry dessert.
Bending over a mound of dirt on a chilly April morning, Werner Girroy paused before explaining the popularity, beyond the distinct taste. He swiftly wielded his gouge and snapped spear after spear, and then plopped two in his jacket pocket as if they were cigars.
“There was a monsieur, more than 100 kilos (220 pounds) and he used to come to the restaurants and do this with the asparagus,” Girroy, 72, said, patting his pocket, puffing his chest slightly. “It was chic to say, ‘This asparagus was picked in the morning, and I’m eating it tonight.’”
Born into one of Village-Neuf’s founding farming families of the 17th century on his mother’s side, Girroy is considered the godfather of the town’s white spears. He retired from full-time farming 12 years ago to concentrate on asparagus, traveling often to learn about other countries’ methods.
Although in recent years he was overtaken as the town’s leading producer, his work crew consists of a dozen retired friends who meet before dawn at his 10 acres. Each day, they pick up to 1,100 pounds of white asparagus and 200 pounds of green until mid-morning. The friends then take some, and Girroy sells the rest under a green-and-white awning in the garage of his half-timbered house.
With only one daughter – a radiologist married to an engineer – he knows the family business will likely end when he puts down the gouge. Yet even with the number of Village-Neuf farming families dwindling from 350 a century ago to 10 today, Girroy doesn’t fear for the town’s prized crop.
“In principle, there will always be young farmers, there will always be asparagus,” he said. “You just have to find the land, get a loan from a bank. And work hard. It’s not easy.”
Susie Woodhams is co-author of The Expat’s Guide to Southern Alsace, an ebook available on Amazon (www.xpatsguide.com).