Marcel Proust wrote that asparagus,
“transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume.”
He was describing the well-known phenomenon that our family calls “asparagus wee.” Asparagus is the only vegetable that contains asparagusic acid. When our bodies digest the vegetable we break asparagus acid down into sulphur-containing compounds many of which can also be found in skunk, garlic, natural gas… and wine.
20 to 40 percent of people don’t appear to produce asparagus wees while others produce it but lack the ability to smell it. A study in the 1980s found that everyone produced asparagus wees but some people couldn’t detect it. People with the ability to detect it could smell it in the urine of people who couldn’t detect it. More recent studies suggest that differences exist between individuals in both the production and detection of asparagus wees.
I recall being told many years ago that asparagus, along with globe artichokes, eggs, chocolate and brussels sprouts cannot be matched with wine. That’s nonsense, of course, particularly in the case of asparagus which partners well with many dishes. The problem with asparagus, I was told, is that it contains sulphur compounds. Wrong. The vegetable is sulphur-free. It’s urine which has sulphur compounds. It’s fine to match sauvignon blanc with asparagus as long as you’re not dining near a urinal.
It’s asparagus season and I’m making the most of it. Asparagus is cheap, crunchy and readily available. Some people prefer white asparagus for its delicacy and soft texture. I like the flavour intensity of green asparagus (I detest peeled green asparagus because they represent flavour wasted).
Sauvignon blanc is my wine of choice with steamed or boiled asparagus, with semillon my second choice and chardonnay third. Asparagus can make red wine taste slightly bitter and it doesn’t seem to work well with aromatic varieties such as riesling, gewürztraminer and pinot gris.
I recently bought an Everdure “Cube” charcoal-fired barbecue designed (or perhaps endorsed) by Heston Blumenthal. It’s a classy machine, although it took me a while to learn to control the heat through charcoal quantity/quality and timing.
A favourite dish is thin spears of asparagus brushed with olive oil and briefly cooked on a moderate heat until they begin to brown while retaining their crunchy texture.
Match with a Fino Sherry or Manzanilla. Sensational with Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla. Expect the earth to move slightly.