White asparagus (a variety of Asparagus officinalis), and particularly that grown around the asparagus capital of Mechelen, is considered a luxurious delicacy. It’s softer and sweeter than the more usual green variety, and the Mechelen locals call it white gold. It is in season from the end of April to the mid-to-late June. In the past, asparagus was harvested as soon as possible after sunrise because the plant above ground immediately discolored when hit by sunlight, and the asparagus entered a lower class when sorting.
Today asparagus are often covered with plastic, so they can be harvested throughout the day. Harvesting is still a manual task: with a knife with a blade about 40 cm long, the asparagus are collected one by one. They are then immersed in cold water as soon as possible, after which they are cut off at the same length and sorted. The sorting is partially done manually. The traditional and authentic way to serve Mechelen White asparagus is Flemish style: boiled or steamed and served with chopped hardboiled eggs, parsley and a clarified butter sauce. Throughout Belgium and particularly Flanders, asparagus can be found in everything from pates and quiches to ice cream.
The asparagus plant is one of the oldest horticultural crops. Asparagus really arrived in Belgium the 19th century, first cultivated in Ghent. After 1880, Mechelen became the center of asparagus cultivation. Today, the asparagus is grown primarily in the province of Limburg, Antwerp and Flemish Brabant. However, the cultivation of asparagus has experienced a long decline in Flanders, at the same time because of the substantial taxation that hit product that the state has considered luxurious, by reason of imports of cheaper asparagus from Asia including but also in Greece and Italy, and because of the importance of the workload needed to produce quality asparagus. Farmers preferred to turn to the production of chicory or cauliflower, more profitable and less tiring to grow. Since the late 1980s, there has been renewed interest from consumers for high quality traditional products, so that production resumed in Flanders but is unable to cope with demand, and so cheaper, imported asparagus continues to dominate the market, even in the home of White Mechelen asparagus production.