Embraced by the banks of the Brenta, the Dolomites, thousands of hard working hands and mounds upon mounds of dirt, the white asparagus of Bassano is a remarkable—and delectable—labor of love.
The Brenta River descends from the Dolomites and flows through Veneto’s picturesque town of Bassano del Grappa, named after nearby Mount Grappa. It runs past the town’s ancient palazzos and medieval stone frescoes, and under the iconic Ponte degli Alpini, a wooden bridge that’s been faithfully restored to its 16th century design several times. Its water saturates the carefully tended local terrain and its minerals feed an Italian luxury unchanged by time—the delicate and delicious white asparagus of Bassano.
The people of Bassano del Grappa have grown white asparagus for centuries, passing down through generations the seeds and knowledge of its ritualistic cultivation. The Brenta River has, over millions of years, created a broad, alluvial plain here with sediment from the mineral-rich Dolomites. Rains soak the well-drained, alkaline soil and a southerly breeze blows inland from the Adriatic Sea. Stacking up at the base of the mountains, the wet air creates a mild microclimate and ensures stable, predictable soil temperatures perfect for the precious crop.
Though farmers make some allowances for modernity, their cultivation has remained largely the same for years. Since white asparagus never sees the sun, it never develops the chlorophyll that would turn it green. Farmers plant the stalks in long rows, mounded with soil. As the plants grow, they are piled with dirt, since any exposure to sunlight could color the asparagus and destroy the crop—some farmers also use opaque row covers for extra protection.
Low-density planting and the loose, alkaline soil allow the plants to grow large, deep and robust root systems that absorb nutrients at a rapid rate. Without the fibrous growth of conventional green asparagus, they retain more residual sugar and the shoots grow especially fat, especially fast. Even the small asparagus are nearly a half-inch in diameter. Because the spears develop at different rates, farmers comb the beds by hand each day to catch each shoot at the optimal eight-inch length, cutting the base with a long-handled, chisel-like knife just as the tip breaks the surface.
After they’re cut, the asparagus spears continue to grow, becoming more fibrousfrom the base up. Processing warehouses are cold and dark to slow this progression. Here, the spears are gathered in 1.5-kilogram bundles and delicately wrapped in willow string or branches. The ends are cut square and affixed with the red and white tag that marks them as DOP-classified Asparago Bianco di Bassano. Immediately sent to market, the asparagus are so fresh that gentle pressure on the stalk produces a clear, fragrant juice.
The plant’s origins here are embedded in local lore. The most accepted story of how the asparagus plant arrived dates back to 1220. Reportedly, a tyrannical feudal lord ruled the area and Anthony of Padua, a Franciscan monk, arrived to pacify him, doing so in part with a share of asparagus seeds from North Africa—a new and needed food crop well-suited to the region’s sandy soil. Anthony of Padua was later sainted for religious teachings, and Saint Anthony’s Day marks the end of asparagus season in Bassano.
The common story for how white asparagus was discovered in the region dates to 1500, when a massive hailstorm destroyed area crops and the starving populace supposedly tilled the soil in a desperate search for sustenance. Their frenzied hunt turned up treasure: entire asparagus, pristinelywhite and tremendously flavorful, were discovered growing beneath the soil.
Though botanically speaking, white asparagus is identical to herbaceous green asparagus (minus the presence of color-inducing chlorophyll), it tastes quite different, carrying the flavor of the ground it was grown in. The stalks are sweet with an earthy, slightly bitter undertone from the minerals in the soil. It’s a subtle, versatile flavor that the entire region celebrates during harvest. Remarkably, these behemoths are supple and toothsome along their entire length after being peeled, so there’s no need to snap off the tough base. Restaurants create whole menus around the prized turion and markets fill with the bound bundles.
White asparagus is cooked into risotto and pasta, tossed in salads and puréed for soup. Some are candied or served with berries for dessert. The most enduring preparation of topping the asparagus with soft-boiled eggs, olive oil and black pepper, remains a favorite.
Preferred by 16th century Venetian nobility, such as the Duchess of Ferrara, who featured white asparagus at her banquets, Bassano’s white asparagus has long been considered a luxury. Demand outstrips supply for this vegetable. Farmers are careful not to overextend themselves, as the crop is labor- and space-intensive. The area manages to yield 15 tons of white asparagus per year. By contrast, the state of California’s total annual asparagus harvest totals about 30,000 tons. Bassano farmers choose quality over quantity and their crop is unavailable outside of Italy.
If an asparagus pilgrimage isn’t possible, good white asparagus from elsewhere is available. The best imports for cooking come from France and Germany, and your local farmers markets can be a great resource.