Asparagus alla franca
Once a novelty, today, asparagus is becoming more widely known and consumed in Turkey. When talking about asparagus, its taste is familiar to palates since antiquity. But here, the novelty is a cultivated variety. Wild asparagus has always foraged from the fields in the countryside for ages. Usually, pan-fried with eggs or boiled and dressed in olive oil and lemon, the thin wild sprouts were amongst the favorite greens of spring in local markets. However, the cultivated asparagus is of rather a recent history in terms of Turkish cuisine. It was a gift of modernization, brought to elite tables of Istanbul by the winds of change under French cuisine’s influence.
Asparagus was one of the fashionable foods of the French court in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Sun King, Louis XIV, was so fond of fresh vegetables that he had marvelous gardens built on the palace grounds when he moved the court from Paris to Versailles. The concept of a kitchen garden came to reality in the most royal sense. The palace kitchen benefited from having the freshest vegetables directly from the royal kitchen garden “Potager du Roi.” A masterpiece of the palace gardener, La Quintinie, placed gardens and greenhouses that could provide many fruits and vegetables, also earlier than their season. Of course, there were beds of asparagus, “Clos des Asperger,” both in greenhouses and out in the garden, as the tender sprouts were one of the most popular vegetables of the king. There were even special utensils that were introduced to the kitchen both to cook and serve asparagus. Porcelain oblong plates with sieve-like holes to drain the cooking juices to be nestled on another plate, silver spatula-like tongs to handle the tender sprouts, and asparagus or soup terrines with asparagus handles became common kitchen utensils. This obsession of the French royalty with asparagus was soon to be reflected upon other countries, especially when George-Auguste Escoffier listed five essential French sauces Le Guide Culinaire, among them the Hollandaise being the almost essential companion to asparagus.
In the Ottoman court, the winds of change were initiated contemporary with another Louis, King Louis XVI (1754-1793), who was contemporary with Ottoman Sultan Selim III (1761-1808). It is known that the two exchanged letters discussing their views on many aspects. During Selim’s period, Istanbul began to transform with the Western influence, which peaked during the time of Sultan Mahmut II (1808-1839). The Ottoman court tables were now set in a western manner, with silver cutlery, porcelain tableware and crystal glasses; all in European style. Of course, anything European or Western was considered to be French, almost synonymous with modernity and fashion, or “à la mode” in French terms. These modern ways were called “alafranga” in Turkish, coming from Italian “alla franca.” The trendsetter of the era was undoubtedly France.
Of course, it was not only the setting of the table but also the food that was influenced by French cuisine. Along with classic Turkish dishes, a few “alafranga” dishes were included in the menus, especially as an official supper with foreign diplomats and guests. Almost always, entrées would be “alafranga,” and the main course meals would be “alaturka,” the conceptual pole of the former term, again coming from the Italian “alla turca.” Interestingly, these entrées would usually include asparagus. When we go through the menus of the Dolmabahçe Palace, Yıldız Palace, and Cercle d’Orient Club, the asparagus appears in many ways: Potage Asperges à la Crème, Asperge en Branches, Asperges Sauce Tartare, Crème d’Arperge, Asperges Sauce Mousseline being some of the examples. And interestingly, when we check the dates of the menus, it was not necessarily the spring or asparagus season, just because this novelty was conserved, another novel creation of modernity after its introduction by the Napoleonic Wars, but that is another story. Again, interestingly, the sprout was never cooked in an “alaturka” fashion, it was always decidedly “alafranga.” The asparagus, though native in its wild form, much loved by foraging peasants, was only accepted to the elite circles and the Ottoman court in its cultivated civilized form, “alla franca” cooked in the French style.
Fork of the Week: These days my green asparagus comes from Elibelinde Tarım, initiated by Aslı Aksoy, empowered by an all-woman team and cultivated in Muğla. The small box contains six bunches which last me a week. They are so fresh that I cannot resist but nibble a few tips raw.
I simply grill the green sprouts naked using my contact grill for making toasted sandwiches and dress with whatever I like: Fresh homemade mayonnaise, melted butter, or even better, clarified butter, poached or fried eggs, or if I have the patience to make Hollandaise or Mousseline sauce.
Check their website to order: https://elibelindetarim.com/. For the white ones, you have to go to the producer Nomad in Eskişehir, also appropriately called Kuşkonmaz Vadisi and translated as Asparagus Valley. Note that they also have their own clarified butter in jars that can be ordered together with the package at https://www.kuskonmazvadisi.com/