The history of Asparagus
Asparagus is a herbaceous, perennial plant native to Asia, probably of Mesopotamia: its name comes originally from the Persian sperega, whose literal meaning is spear; then the Greeks adopted the term asparagos, which means full of lympth.
It seems that, from Mesopotamia it spread, in ancient times, to temperate regions. Some Egyptian finds would prove that asparagus was known since ancient Egypt and just from Egypt it would spread around the Mediterranean and Asia Minor about 2000 years ago. The first literary documents related to this vegetable can be attributed to the Greek Theophrastus, who wrote the "History of Plants", about 300 years B.C.; Cato, a century later, spoke of asparagus from an agronomic point of view, since asparagus was used for a long time only for its medicinal and therapeutic qualities.
However, soon asparagus began to be cooked.
In this respect, for example, the asparagus was already well known to the Romans from 200 B.C.: Pliny, as well as enhancing its gastronomic qualities, in 79 B.C. showed the methods of cultivation, preparation and production od asparagus in his "Naturalis Historia", as later will do Apicius. The Roman emperors liked so much asparagus that they were supposed to have special ships built only to go and collect them, ships that were just called like the vegetable ("asparagus").
Martial praises this herbaceous plant with tender pulp in verses, advising people to try the asparagus from the coast of Ravenna, exported in Rome to delight the palate of the upper classes.
The presence in Italy of the Horticultural species of asparagus is so old that asparagus was considered indigenous. Sure is that the asparagus was in vogue even among the Romans of the Lower Empire, and represented one of the most sought-after dishes, so that, as the Romans conquered new lands, they enhanced its cultivation.
In the Middle Ages, when the plant of asparagus was harvested mostly for its therapeutic qualities (depurative and duretic), the Schola Medica Salernitana said: augmentat sparagus sperma (asparagus increases the sperm), opening discussions on the aphrodisiac power of asparagus.
The aphrodisiac fame of asparagus comes from the shape, long and turgid, and from the speed of growth of the shoots (tips) that in 1-2 days reach up to 25 cm in legth. If women were advised against frigidity asparagus spears wrapped in rose petals (to be swallowed as pills), to treat impotence and encourage male fertility larger asparagus were recommended. This belief is still alive in Bassano del Grappa (Vicenza), where very thick asparagus stalks are produced and consumed as propitiation food during the wedding feasts. Starting from 1500, the cultivation of asparagus began also in France, reaching the peak of its popularity in 1600, at the court of the Sun King: it is said that the famous gardener La Quintinye was able to cultivate asparagus for the glutton Sun King (1678-1715) even in December. It seems that to the aphrodisiac power of the asparagus appealed also the Sun King himself, by erecting an obelisk at Versailles in honour of the gardener who managed to cultivate them thoughout all the year.
In any case, asparagus remained for a long time a luxury food that could be enjoyed only by the most wealthy families in Europe.
During 1500 asparagus became popular in England, and, subsequently, it was introduced in North America, where Native Americans dessicated it for medicinal uses.
The beginning of 1700 marks a turning point in cultivations of asparagus, with the appearance of a new big-sized variety of asparagus It was a great achievement for horticulture in all countries. Agronomist, farmers and producers of asparagus devoted to the cultivation of the big and excellent "Dutch asparagus", a variety that later spread also in Italy.
Originally only the green asparagus, was known, but around 1500 also the white asparagus was discovered, thanks to a monk who had to pick it up pulling it from the ground, finding out its delicacy and its methods of cultivation.
Since then, some aspects of the cultivation of asparagus did not change, while a lot of the materials and the methods of cultivation of this vegetable changed.
In Italy the vavarieties of asparagus are grown mainly in Piemonte, Liguria, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio and Campania.
In Veneto and in Friuli Venezia Giulia the production of asparagus concentrates towards the white one, whose cultivation is higher than the green. The region of Friuli Venezia Giulia is popular for the production of the white asparagus and the processing of the white asparagus, introduced in the town of Tavagnasco (Udine) almost by chance in the Nineteenth century, when people thought to solve the problem of excessive moisture in some funds cultivated with vineyards, settling between one row and another some asparagus. Because of the soil characteristics the plant of asparagus immediately found in Tavagnasco the ideal habitat, which extolled its precious organoleptic qualities, so that in a few years the production of asparagus took precedence over that of the vine.