Guest blog by Sam Hadadi,
As the first buds of colour start shooting from the ground, everyone at Lucy Bee starts looking forward to the British asparagus season. Short but sweet, the asparagus season is only here for a matter of weeks (it certainly wins our award for most seasonal produce) and we like to make the most of it!
Fresh, tender and full of delicious flavour, these little spears of goodness are a real culinary delicacy - and well worth waiting for. We love to serve our asparagus as “soldiers” for dippy eggs, griddled alongside salmon, or tossed into homemade quiches and tarts. We even love to eat them on their own, roasted and sprinkled with salt. Yep, we’re mad about the asparagus.
Yet, as with all our favourite foods, we’re always eager to learn more. Here, we delve into the history of the humble asparagus spear, check out its amazing health benefits and also discover why it can give your wee a funny sort of odour (which, strangely, not everyone can smell!).
Whether you love it or loathe it, we bet that you’ll still find the history of our favourite spring vegetable every bit as fascinating as we do. You see, asparagus (or Asparagus officinalis, if you want to get technical) isn’t just grown on home soil – it’s found in all its glory across most of Europe, northern Africa and even western Asia and this means that it’s got a pretty impressive history…
Going back to way back when (in other words, we’re not 100% sure on exact dates), many think that asparagus was around in the first century. In fact, clever archaeologist types have found evidence of it growing in Ancient Greece and Rome, while the Egyptians loved the stuff so much that they were even said to offer it up to the gods! Legend even has it that Queen Nefertiti declared asparagus to be the food of the Gods.
Meanwhile, the Ancient Romans loved these tasty little spears so much that they learned to preserve it by freezing it in the Alps for the Feast of Epicurus and the emperors would even form “asparagus fleets” so that workers would harvest the best quality asparagus and bring it back to them.
Asparagus also has a tasty history when it comes to our health, too. The somewhat famous Greek physician Galen wrote about the wonders of asparagus, while Islamic author Muhammad al-Nafzawi talked about its aphrodisiac effects in 'The Perfumed Garden'. So famous were its effects in the bedroom that Madame de Pompadour (chief mistress of Louis XV) was even served the points d'amour ("love tips") as a delicacy.
Eventually, this famed green vegetable was grown in French monasteries because of its amazing ability to counteract fatigue. The Greeks even recommended it as a cure for toothaches.
Now, onto the most pressing question and the biggest mystery of them all (or, for us at least!): why does asparagus make your wee smell?
Well…here’s where we’re going to get a little bit scientific on you. You see, asparagus contains a particularly stinky, sulphurous compound by the name of mercaptan (which is also found in rotten eggs, garlic and onions, FYI). When our tummy breaks down mercaptan, digestive by-products are released which then trigger that strange smell (you’ll be able to smell it within 15 minutes to half an hour). Of course, we should point out that this is still up for debate – some scientists still aren’t positive that this is the cause of that peculiar smell1.
However, if you’re looking a little puzzled, fret not – not everyone can actually smell this unpleasant odour. In fact, the world is divided into two camps: those who can detect a strange smell once they’ve eaten the green stuff and those who can’t.
So, what’s going on? Well, it’s all in your genes. Oddly, while most people’s wee does smell après-asparagus, your genetics will determine whether or not you can smell it (studies have shown that fewer than half of us Brits can detect that funny pong2, while American studies show that up to 92% of those in the US can smell it3). Again, to get a bit more technical on you, some of us have what’s called “specific anosmia”. While this may sound like a vegetable from the BFG, it’s pretty much a genetic inability to smell certain odours.
To go into more detail, scientists believe that some of us may simply lack an enzyme that helps us to detect the smell, while others even lack the gene that helps us to create the smell in the first place1.
Weird, huh? But there’s plenty more asparagus-shaped facts where that came from! Here are some of our favourite bits and bobs about this beautiful spring veg:
While there may be many weird and wonderful things about asparagus, the thing we love the most (apart from the taste) is that it’s so good for our body!
In fact, these fleshy, green spears are loaded with goodness and can help to fight and prevent disease – and they’ve been used for centuries in India and parts of Asia as a botanical medicine.
Want to know more? Here are just some of the health benefits of asparagus:
Full of Goodness
Asparagus isn’t just a great source of fibre. It’s also full of folate (making it wonderful for pregnant women as it helps babies to develop healthily in the womb), vitamins A, C, E and K and also the trace mineral chromium, which helps insulin to transport glucose from the bloodstream and into cells.
It’s a Natural Aphrodisiac
If you want to add some va-va-voom into the bedroom, then look no further than the humble little asparagus spear. In fact, it’s thought to be one of the top food aphrodisiacs, with Nicholas Culpeper, a 17th century English botanist and herbalist, once writing that it “stirreth up bodily lust in Man or Woman”. The reason for this is probably down to the vitamin E, which boosts sex production hormones.
Acts as a Diuretic
Asparagus also happens to be high in asparagine, a particular amino acid which acts as a diuretic. This helps the body to remove salts which, in turn, helps those with high blood pressure or heart problems.
Can Help Fight Cancer
Along with every health blogger’s favourite of kale, asparagus is packed with glutathione, a detoxifying compound that helps us to break down carcinogens and harmful free radicals. It’s also chock full of antioxidants and, because of this, asparagus could help to protect against and fight certain cancers.
Boosts the Brain
This delicious spring veggie may also slow down cognitive decline. Like many other leafy greens, asparagus contains folate, which works alongside vitamin B12 to help prevent cognitive problems.
Keeps Our Digestive System Happy
Asparagus is rich in a compound known as “inulin”, which supports those friendly probiotics and keeps our tummy happy. You see, inulin is a special kind of carb and doesn’t get broken down straight away. Instead, it passes through into our large intestine, where it becomes a lovely food source for the “good” bacteria.
However, it’s worth remembering that asparagus has a high respiration rate. This effectively means that it “dies” before most other fruits and veggies do, so you’ll need to eat up as soon as possible to get in all the goodness.
As with all fresh fruit and veg, asparagus is best enjoyed when it’s in-season, especially because it deteriorates so quickly. Happily, the British asparagus season is well under way (it kicks off on St George’s Day, on April 23) and runs through until June, so now is the time to get eating and buying!
Picking and Storing:
When it comes to picking the perfect asparagus, you should look for the perfect tips – think firm and perky rather than wilted or limp. The shoots should also be straight and firm, with plenty of vibrant colour.
Once you have these mighty green spears in your hand, you should wrap them in damp kitchen roll, before popping them into a paper bag and storing them in the salad drawer of your fridge. Alternatively, you can try storing in a jug of cold water in the fridge. However you store it, always aim to eat within 48 hours (once picked, asparagus quickly loses flavour, tenderness and goodness).
Simply give your asparagus a wash before cooking and you’re usually done. However, if you have larger sticks of asparagus (which also often pack in more taste), simply bend the spear until it snaps and throw the woody part away.
When it comes to cooking your asparagus, there are lots of delicious ways to enjoy this green goodness! You could try boiling or steaming until just tender (around 4 to 7 minutes), then serving drizzled with hollandaise, butter or Parmesan. We also like to sprinkle asparagus with Himalayan salt, drizzle in Lucy Bee coconut oil and roast for around 15 minutes.
You could even try wrapping them in Parma or Prosciutto and grilling for around 5 minutes. Meanwhile, stir fried asparagus is popular in Asian cuisine and works a treat when cooked in a hot wok (just remember that it only needs around one minute, so add it at the end). De-lish!
Asparagus works wonderfully with all sorts of flavours and foods but some of our favourite accompaniments include: butter, Parmesan, hollandaise, vinaigrette, eggs, bacon or pancetta.
If you’re still after a touch of culinary inspiration, then here are some of our favourite asparagus dishes to whip up at home:
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.