BOSTON — `HERE is the way we eat white asparagus in the Netherlands,'' says Dutch Chef Herman van Ham, choosing a fat spear from his pot and holding it out for me to taste. ``Finger bowls are always served, too,'' he adds. Chef Van Ham has been creating and refining white asparagus dishes for more than 32 years, and has written several books on the subject. Today he is giving a lesson on its preparation to the chefs at Boston's Marriott-Copley Place Hotel.
The Dutch and other Europeans enjoy their white asparagus so much they pick it up with their fingers, dip it in butter, and nibble from tip to end, he says. Some eat a pound singlehandedly every other night during its peak season - March through June.
A cherished food since the days of the Pharaohs of Egypt, asparagus has been prized for centuries in Europe. But it is the creamy white spears that are served at all the finest hotels and restaurants on the continent.
White asparagus is produced by mounding soil over the growing stalks so that they are hidden from sunlight. The cultivation technique is rarely used here, and white spears are seldom available in American supermarkets. Small farms in the Netherlands began growing it around 1900. Today, about half the crop is exported, with neighboring Germany being the best customer.
The mild, tender, delicate, and delicious white spears require rather special treatment for cooking, explains Chef Van Ham through an interpreter. ``White asparagus is 90 percent water and must be placed in cold water for a few hours, as soon as possible. It should then be peeled very carefully to remove the outer layer,'' he says.
After peeling the half-dozen, straight-as-a-ramrod and white-as-ivory stalks, he places them in a non-aluminum pan with cold water to cover. (An aluminum pan will discolor the vegetable.) He tightly crimps aluminum foil around the top of the pan, and places it on the stove.
Using two corners of his apron as pot holders, the pan is removed when the water starts to boil, but he cautions to ``leave the cover on for 30 minutes. No peeking,'' he advises. ``The asparagus must continue cooking in the water, off the heat.''
He then reserves the cooking water for sauces or asparagus soup. For soup, don't add stock. Just some heavy cream, salt, and butter, he explains.
``And now for dessert,'' he announces after answering questions. We watch as he peels a fat asparagus stalk, and makes very thin, diagonal slices. After saut'eing them in a small amount of butter, he adds a sprinkle of sugar, and heats them until the slices are covered with a golden glaze. An individual portion of cr`eme caramel is unmolded, the glazed white asparagus slices are added to the top, and the result is an unusual combination.
White asparagus stalks are graded into 16 categories, of which the Double A Extra is the highest quality. A kilogram of Dutch seeds costs about $2,500, and a crop cannot be harvested until three years after planting. The plants produce a crop for eight years. After that, asparagus cannot be grown in that spot for at least 25 years because top quality stalks can no longer be cultivated in the exhausted soil.
Although asparagus has been found growing wild throughout the world, food historians are not sure where it originated. Many people find the wild green asparagus tastier with its slightly bitter flavor. John Gerard, the English herbalist, praised its flavor in the sixteenth century.
Northern Italy was famous for its beds of white asparagus with purple tips during the Renaissance, and historians frequently tell of the asparagus of Ravenna as the best in the world. Three large stalks would add up to one pound. In France, King Louis XIV was served asparagus year round because an ingenious gardener grew the stalks in hotbeds in a stone house. Shortly after, the Germans and Dutch began producing white asparagus.
Today, Europeans hold asparagus festivals that include the crowning of an asparagus queen and asparagus peeling races. During the annual ``white gold'' festival, Chef van Ham has served the Dutch royal family at his restaurant, the Hostellerie De Hamert in Wellerlooi, where white asparagus is much celebrated.
During asparagus season, European and American restaurants often offer special asparagus dishes. In Dusseldorf, Germany, one restaurant menu lists 209 asparagus dishes. In New York City, the Caf'e des Artistes lists about 10.
White asparagus is often served with a slice of Westphalian ham, new potatoes, and hollandaise sauce. But few pleasures surpass eating these white (or green) stalks briefly steamed, heavily buttered, and lightly sprinkled with salt or nutmeg.
Chef van Ham's recipes, served through July 7 at the Mariott-Copley Place's Bello Mondo restaurant, include: white asparagus with lobster consomme garni; white asparagus medallions of veal; white asparagus broiled fillet of salmon; white asparagus cocktail ``Prince William Alexandre,'' which is tender breast of chicken, fillets of oranges, and a ginger curry cream sauce.