NOTRE DAME DE LOURDES -- It's not just the earliness of asparagus -- now spearheading (a well-worn journalism term meant literally here) out of Manitoba soils -- that makes it seem a miracle.
It's the unearthly speed at which it grows. Asparagus spears have been measured to grow 25 centimetres in 24 hours, according to literature. At Jamault Asparagus farm, 115 kilometres west of Winnipeg, it can grow more than 10 centimetres by supper.
"On a day when it's 27 to 30 Celsius," says asparagus grower Vivian Jamault, "I can start picking (her one-hectare asparagus patch) and by the time I reach the end, I can start picking all over again."
Adds husband, Gabe: "I always say if you stand long enough, you can see it grow."
Jamault Asparagus is one of two U-Pick asparagus farms advertised in Manitoba. Her operation was in full swing as of last week. Locally grown asparagus has been hitting grocery shelves the past three weeks.
Asparagus is regarded as the King of Veggies not just because of its crown and its royal purple shade. Its taste is fit for a king, says Vivian.
Raw, it tastes like fresh peas with an asparagus tinge, and is tough to resist. Vivian prepares it many ways and provides recipes: stir-fried, steamed in butter, pickled; or made into salads, quiches, or crepes in white wine sauce.
She also barbecues it. She takes the larger asparagus spears, parboils them briefly, dips them in olive oil with seasoning salt and garlic, lets them sit a bit, then grills them to a light brown skin.
She started her own asparagus U-Pick after the U-Pick the family always went to in Portage la Prairie closed. It took four to five years to make healthy stands that could withstand public picking, which started in 1999. Asparagus is a perennial and can produce for 15 to 20 years.
"I'm a farm girl and I like being outside and gardening... and for me it's fun meeting new people," she says.
The plants prosper in the light brown soil on the Jamault farm, which allows the asparagus to develop deep roots. It's tougher to grow asparagus in Winnipeg clay.
Asparagus provides a great dose of antioxidants, cleans the bladder, and is a good source of iron. Which is another thing about asparagus -- it changes the odour of one's urine. Or, as Marcel Proust observed, asparagus "transforms my chamber pot into a flask of perfume."
He's entitled to his opinion. As difficult as it is for the untrained proboscis to articulate the smell, one description might be "swampy" -- like a fetid, stagnant bog, slick with algae slime, on the hottest day of the year when the only movement is the occasional bubble of hydrogen sulfide rising from decomposing matter below.
An improvement, in other words. The joke in Carman is that when McGill's Country Store opened the first asparagus U-pick in the 1980s (now closed), people began checking themselves into the Carman Memorial Hospital because they thought something was wrong with them.
The biggest asparagus grower in Manitoba is Connery's Riverdale Farms near Portage la Prairie. The farm, run by Doug Connery, has about 20 acres of asparagus. "That's a pile of asparagus," in the words of provincial vegetable expert Brian Hunt. Harvesting asparagus is very labour intensive, and large growers such as Connery employ temporary workers from Mexico.
Asparagus at the Jamault farm is $2.25 per pound pre-picked, $1.75 per pound if you pick. Some people will pick up to 30 pounds. They have 150 to 200 customers per year, and sell all their asparagus.
People can use knives to cut asparagus, although the Jamaults do not provide knives. Most people break the spears off by hand. Interested pickers should call 204-248-2196. Jamault Asparagus is 1.6 kilometres north of Notre Dame, on Highway 244.
Also advertising as an asparagus U-Pick is Vanden Berg Vegetables near Winkler, at 204-325-9004 or 204-325-6399.