I have won the lottery. The asparagus lottery. In my hands are the season’s first Norwegian asparagus. I have found them at the deli ”Gutta på Haugen”. They cost a small fortune and will only be around from May until midsummer.
Asparagus from Norway’s summer paradise
Last year I only managed to get my hands on Norwegian asparagus once. This year’s specimens are from Hvasser, a little island on the fringes of the Oslo Fjord about 100 kilometres south of Oslo. This is home to some of the best asparagus in Norway. We are now in Norway’s summer paradise. Hvasser belongs to the municipality of Tjøme. A warm climate, about 500 islands and islets and close proximity to Oslo, makes this the ideal place for summer vacation. Hence the population soares from 4 700 to 20 000 in the summer, including the Royal Family and many from the elite of Norway.
The asparagus do not care much about the pale summer tourists in their luxurious summer huts. They have a mission to tend to. The asparagus only have 6 weeks to produce their crop, so they are in a hurry. They can grow 10 centimeters on a single day. If asparagus were an athlete, they would be a sprinter. Their time of performance is short, their time of preparation is long. After the crop is harvested, the asparagus need the remaining 10 months of the year to build up their energy for the next season.
Dislike of frost and long journeys
The white asparagus and green ones are the same species but the whites have never seen the sun. As soon as the asparagus surface, the sun’s chlorophyll turns them green. The whites are considered a delicacy, particularly in France and Germany. The asparagus has been used both as food and medicine for a long time. It is pictured as an offering by the Ancients Egyptians as far back as 3 000 BC. In Norway, on the contrary, the asparagus has only been cultivated commercially the last 20–30 years. It needs patience and a warm climate and is far from the ideal thing to grow in Norway.
Asparagus are quite frail and do not bear frost nights or long transportation well. In his book ”Ekte mat” (Real food) the Norwegian food writer Andreas Viestad puts the facts on the table: The longer you transport the asparagus, the worse the quality. The Norwegian asparagus from Hvasser are so fresh you can eat them raw – unlike the wooden asparagus from Thailand and Peru that fill the shop isles year-round. The next time you hold a bunch of Norwegian asparagus in your hands, think about what a wonder they are.
I serve the asparagus with salmon, mashed potatoes and, to honour the islands of Tjøme, paradise butter with lots of herbs. The butter is one of the simplest and best sauces I can think of. It is inspired by the classic French Café de Paris butter served with steak. This is a big batch but you can freeze the remains. Pop it out of the freezer and serve an impressing meal if you happen to have guests for dinner on a regular Monday. This dish is also great with brussels sprouts or spinach instead of asparagus. For the mashed potatoes, make sure you buy the floury kind, e.g. the Norwegian almond potato (mandel) or the British Desireé, King Edward or Maris Piper. I often serve the butter with salmon. To me this dish is the fish counterpart to Steak with Béarnaise.
Like the songbirds that stop their song at midsummer, the Norwegian asparagus season ends on June 23. When the song of the asparagus is over, a new one starts. On the fields at Hvasser the silent murmur of the cauliflower, carrot, potato and parsley will begin.
Salmon with asparagus (makes 4)
800 g salmon filet (Salma)
a bunch of Norwegian asparagus
250 g butter at room temperature
1 tbsp ketchup (yes, ketchup!)
1 tbsp mustard
1 garlic clove
a handful of dill
a handful of chives or parsley
1 organic lemon, juice and zest
zest of 1 organic orange
1 tsp salt
12 floury medium sized potatoes
75 g butter
200 ml full fat milk or cream
salt and pepper
1. Start with the paradise butter. Leave the butter in room temperature to soften. Finely chop all ingredients (except ketchup and mustard). Beat the butter until fluffy, then mix in the rest of the ingredients. Transfer to a cling film and shape into a log.
2. Peel the potatoes and boil until tender. Melt the milk/cream and butter in a small pan. When the potatoes are done, drain them well so all water is evaporated. Mash them before gradually adding the milk and butter mixture while you stir with a wooden spoon. Add the milk gradually to avoid adding too much – you do not want potato milk! To make mash creamy, give it a good stir and you will notice how the mash turns whiter and thicker. Season. Put the lid on and keep warm. Do not let it boil – it will destroy the creaminess.
3. Bend the asparagus stalks at their natural breaking point and break them, about 2 centimeters from the bottom. Drizzle with olive oil and leave in a hot grill pan for about 5 minutes, turning them once in a while. They are finished when they are al dente: soft but still a bit hard. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Heat a frying pan with cooking oil. Cut the salmon into neat pieces, season them well on both sides and fry for 2 minutes on each side on medium heat. The fish should have a nice crust on the outside and be flaky on the inside. If you fry it too much, the fish will turn dry as sheep’s wool. When you are ready to serve, put a generous chunk of butter on top of the salmon. Serve with the mashed potatoes and asparagus.