Last Sunday evening, a friend and I attended an Italian style Asparagus Festival hosted by Slow Food Boston and chef Chris Douglass at Tavolo, his newest restaurant in Dorchester. Douglass, who has always been committed to buying fresh, local produce for his restaurants whenever possible, took some of his cooks out to Sunderland, Massachusetts the Friday before, where they hand-harvested the first asparagus shoots of the spring for Sunday's supper.
While the kitchen worked furiously to whip up a plethora of asparagus dishes, servers passed around trays of springtime cocktails--my favorite was the Campari punch--while diners got a short lesson in asparagus history. Apparently, the Connecticut River Valley was known as "the asparagus capital of the world" for much of the 20th century. In 1950, in fact, farmers in the area produced 50 tons of asparagus each season, aided by the sandy loam soil left behind by a glacial lake that once filled the valley. Then, in the 1970s, a virus essentially wiped out the crops of some 200 area farms that were growing asparagus, and many farmers could not afford the investment of money and time required to plant a new, disease-resistant variety a few years later. A small group of determined growers continued to plant asparagus, but the heyday was over.
When the dishes began to emerge from the kitchen at Tavolo, I felt deeply grateful for this small group of holdouts, including Enterprise and Smiarowski Farms, where our spears had been gathered. There was a light and fluffy asparagus quiche with a firm buttery crust, tender asparagus-stuffed chicken, and a sort of cheesy asparagus mousse, a little piece of heaven on a spoon. There was asparagus risotto, creamy asparagus pasta with a savory ham, and perfectly cooked simple spears, which let the crisp, bright flavors of the freshly picked vegetable speak for themselves. Finally, when we thought we couldn't possibly find room for another mouthful, the servers brought out small plates of asparagus ice cream, served with strawberries and a sweet balsamic reduction. This was a first for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the sweet, grassy taste. I'm not sure I would have identified the flavor as asparagus if I hadn't already known, but I would definitely identify it as a yummy, refreshing dessert.
If you're sorry you missed this bonanza of fresh, local flavor, don't fret. It's not too late to get your fill of this springtime treat! On Saturday, May 30th, you can head to the Annual Strawberry and Asparagus Supper at the First Congregational Church in Hadley, MA. Call (413) 584-4117 to reserve your spot at one of two sittings (5:00 & 6:30).