Traditional Russian product that has become an " overseas delicacy»
Jun 18, 2020

Traditional Russian product that has become an " overseas delicacy»

April-June is the traditional asparagus season in Europe. The oblivion of this  in Soviet times led to the fact that asparagus was considered a new and unusual culture in our country. In the  literature, you can even find such definitions as" strange vegetable "and"unusual Russian land sprout". However, for a Russian person of the XIX and early XX century, there was nothing strange about asparagus. 

In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, fresh asparagus was sold for most of the year, and the center of its cultivation was Patriarchal merchant Moscow. Moscow gardeners practiced a peculiar method of "steam distillation" of asparagus in the open ground, which significantly differed from the generally accepted culture. Winter Moscow asparagus was considered the best: it was white, thick, characteristically spindly, and less fibrous than the ground.

Like many other cultivated plants, asparagus was originally grown as a medicinal product. Hence its scientific name-medicinal asparagus (Asparagus officinalis). In its wild form, it is found throughout the European part of Russia, the Caucasus and Western Siberia. Tumbleweeds are often formed by dried asparagus bushes. Green twigs are used in bouquets and for decorating rooms. In the second half of the XIX century, even the point of view was expressed that "the real Fatherland of asparagus is Russia and the area around Kazan". The famous agronomist and gardener Nikolai Kichunov gave this hypothesis with reference to the work of the German botanist Karl Theodor Rympler Die illustrierte Gemüse - und Obstgärtnerei ("Illustrated gardening", 1879). 

In the wild, asparagus was rarely eaten. Probably, the culture of its culinary use in Russia was initiated by the Dutch who lived in Moscow. The German Adam Olearius, who repeatedly visited "Moskovia" in the 1630-1640s, wrote: "There are also all kinds of kitchen vegetables, especially asparagus as thick as a finger, which I myself ate at a certain Dutch merchant, my good friend, in Moscow." Consequently, the cultural history of asparagus in Russia is at least 400 years old.

For some time, asparagus was eaten only by foreigners. The Dutch Explorer Cornelis de Bruijn, who visited Russia in the early 1700s, noted: "There are also asparagus and artichoke, but only foreigners eat them." From the expenditure records of 1741, it follows that asparagus was growing in the Petersburg Palace gardens at that time. By the middle of the XVIII century, asparagus begins to appear in private gardens. By the end of the XVIII century, asparagus in Russia became "a plant quite familiar, found in the kitchen garden", as described by the scientist-encyclopedist Vasily Levshin in the "Dictionary of cookery, henchman, canditor and distillator" (1795-1797). "The best asparagus is aerial, that is, when it comes out green by itself from the heat of the air; the heat of the dung driven out is white and not so delicious," Levshin believed. In" Ogorodnik " (1817) Levshin added: "This garden plant, for all its good qualities, has no Vice: it is healthy, has a pleasant taste, yields well, and can supply a table for three months with a skilled gardener." The Tula scientist distinguished three kinds of asparagus: Dutch, remarkable for its thickness, common and wild.Vasily Levshin's words are confirmed by the "Register of garden seeds, written out in German and Russian, with the meaning of prices" (1804). At the beginning of the XIX century, the Moscow gardener Nikita Andreev's son Borbotkin could buy seeds of "Dutch Tolstoy asparagus". Based on the family memoirs of one of the oldest Moscow gardeners, Nikolai Kichunov wrote that the culture of asparagus in Moscow was engaged in even before the Patriotic war of 1812.The famous St. Petersburg gardener Efim Grachev attributed the beginning of industrial (commercial) breeding of asparagus in St. Petersburg to 1815. However, asparagus, as well as artichokes, are mentioned among the" garden products " of the Petersburg greengrocer earlier, in 1799. By the end of the 1860s, asparagus became an ordinary vegetable for St. Petersburg owners. "This plant is cultivated by almost every host, though not on a large scale"(1868). Nevertheless, Moscow remained the center of asparagus culture in Russia. The most extensive asparagus plantation in pre-revolutionary Russia was located in Khamovniki and belonged to hereditary gardeners Pyshkin. Even by modern standards, it occupied an impressive area of 12 acres (13 ha). 

Steam distillation was carried out from August, throughout the winter, until may. Russian Russian gardeners own the method of steam distillation of asparagus and therefore can be called Russian. a detailed description of agricultural technology can be found in Kichunov's post-revolutionary pamphlet "to the culture and distillation of asparagus" (1920), which summarizes the practical experience of Moscow gardeners. One of the success factors was maintaining optimal soil temperature. To do this, the manure was often stirred so that its heat was uniform. When driving out winter asparagus, the layer of manure was covered with matting to keep it warm and protect it from frost. Winter forcing of asparagus requires a lot of experience, that is, long-term skill and unremitting attention, which the gardener should not be interrupted not only during the day, but sometimes even at night. Moscow gardeners divided asparagus into proper "steam", obtained from August to April, and "air", which was harvested from mid-April to may 23. Steam asparagus, in turn, was divided into early spring-driven from mid-August to the end of September, late spring — from the end of September to half of November, and winter-early spring — from November 15 to April 15. From mid-may to June, Tsarskoye Selo asparagus was delivered to Moscow, which ripened a little later. Thus, without a crop of asparagus, the city remained no more than two months of the year. The best (and most expensive) were the winter's asparagus.In Ivan Goncharov's novel Oblomov, asparagus is contrasted with turnips as a sign of well-to-do life. It is not uncommon to find asparagus on the menu of pre-revolutionary state dinners. On sale asparagus was divided into two varieties: soup and sauce. The first was thin and fibrous, the second was thick and was always sold with heads, as it was served whole (with sauce). Moscow asparagus sprouts were about 20 cm long. Soup asparagus cost on average three times less than sauce. In winter, the price of any asparagus increased three or four times. In addition, in pre-revolutionary shops, you could buy canned Russian and French asparagus.

In the 1920s, Nikolai Kichunov expected the expansion of asparagus culture in Moscow, the development of asparagus canning, and the transformation of this vegetable from refined to democratic. Instead, in the Soviet years, not only the Moscow culture of asparagus, but also the memory of it, completely disappeared. It returned to the Russian table, although not in the same volumes, only after 2016, when the first asparagus plantation in modern Russia was established in the Moscow region.

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