Digging for White Gold

White gold, the royal vegetable: That's the reverence white asparagus draws in Europe. Locally, however, it has only a minimal presence on tables and in stores. Green asparagus, which is less labor intensive to grow and cook, dominates the local market instead.

But that's going to change. The Agriculture Ministry is planning to launch a program within a month to teach farmers how to grow Europe's white asparagus, and hopes to see the handful of dunams currently under cultivation expanded to dozens of dunams within the program's first stage.

"The time is ripe to introduce this product in Israel," says Zipi Gadish, whose family has been cultivating white asparagus for two years on their farm on Nir Oz, in the Arava.

They are one of Israel's three growers of the crop.

"Elderly central European ex-pats have known about it; now, with everyone's frequent trips to Europe, more and more Israelis are being exposed to this product and falling in love with it," she says.

White asparagus has a delicate flavor, and is considered sweeter and softer than the green variety. The European asparagus season, which lasts from mid-April through June, features asparagus festivals around the Continent, complete with asparagus-peeling contests and the crowning of asparagus queens, often the woman who presents the largest asparagus stalk.

In Germany, restaurants have a spargelkarte - asparagus menu - which offers the stalks with butter, Hollandaise sauce and potatoes, along with a wide variety of other dishes, down to the occasional asparagus ice cream. You can also find asparagus routes between towns famed for the crop.

All this asparagus is white, of course, like the large majority consumed in Europe.

Why all the fuss about a vegetable? Because it's considered a harbinger of the European spring: Asparagus is the young shoot that grows from an underground rhizome, which is similar to a bulb, making it one of the season's first vegetables.

The white and the green are essentially the same plant, except that the white version is entirely sheltered from light: Traditionally, dirt was packed around the shoots; nowadays black covers are sometimes used as well. This prevents the shoot from photosynthesizing and producing chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green.

Preparation methods are relatively versatile. The white variety has a tough, fibrous skin and needs to be peeled, and also requires a longer cooking time than the green.

White asparagus has been available sporadically in Israel over the past few years. It's currently in season, and while you're unlikely to find it in restaurants just yet, you may spot a few lone bunches in markets and stores. The Gadish family sells to several supermarkets and have a stand at the farmers' market on the Tel Aviv port every Friday. This week they will be there tomorrow, for a special farmer's market in advance of the Shavuot holiday.

Bunches sell for between NIS 20 and 30, similar to prices in Europe.

The Israeli preference for green asparagus could change as the white variety becomes more prominent, says Omar Zaidan, deputy manager of the Agriculture Ministry's training and professional service, which is launching the program to teach cultivation techniques in partnership with the Plants Production and Marketing Board and the Vegetable Growers Association.

"In a year we'll be able to say fully what potential white asparagus holds," says Zaidan.

He already sees evidence of changing tastes, which puts the onus on growers to ramp up production. "Demand is growing, and farmers will need to better learn the growing methods," he says.

Within two years, the fruits of the program will hit the market, he adds.

The program can expect even greater success if farmers find an export market in Europe, says Zaidan.

Given the Gadish family's experience, the chances of this appear to be good. The Gadish family is ready to ramp up production starting next year, increasing distribution around Israel - and becoming Israel's only exporter, selling to Germany, an asparagus stronghold itself.

They began growing white asparagus two years ago at their farm on Nir Oz, in the Arava, thanks to a German client with whom they have been working for 20 years, Zipi Gadish says.

"He exposed us to this vegetable that German citizens so love," she says.

The Gadishes and their client came up with the idea of adding this crop to their exports with the aim of expanding the limited German spargelzeit - asparagus season.

This year they're growing 13 dunams of asparagus. Next year they'll be cultivating 43 dunams, including some fields in the Galilee; the different regional climates will enable them to harvest from December through June. While a young field yields only 300 to 400 kilograms per dunam, once the crop is established, each dunam can produce up to a ton, explains Uzi Gadish, Zipi's husband.