Just about every Wednesday some friends and I have lunch together at a local restaurant. It’s an eclectic gang consisting of the owner of a gardening and apartment maintenance company, a journalist for our local newspaper LA RIOJA, an advertising sales manager and me. One of the rules governing the conversation is that anything goes, which is Spain is a guarantee of a lively exchange of ideas.
The conversation last week centered on whether it’s possible to pair asparagus with Rioja.
If you live in the USA you’re probably used to eating green asparagus, boiled and eaten with mayonnaise. In most of Europe, however, we eat white asparagus, the kind that’s cultivated underground and picked just as the tip breaks through the earth. For most of the year we have to settle for the canned version, but springtime is the time for fresh asparagus. Just typing the word makes my mouth water.
April is the best time for white asparagus. In Spain there’s a saying about it:
Abril para mí, mayo para el amo y junio para ninguno (in April for me, in May for my boss and in June for no one).
It’s tricky to prepare. First you have to peel the fibrous outer skin away, wearing gloves so your hands don’t get black. Then you gently cook the stalks in boiling water with salt and a little sugar. To serve it, most people make vinaigrette or mayonnaise and dip the warm stalks in them. It’s one of the two food items, along with baby lamb chops, that most people here eat with their fingers.
The problem is that asparagus can make wine taste terrible. According to my friend Karen MacNeil, a journalist and wine educator from the NapaValley, asparagus, a member of the lily family, contains methione, a sulfurous amino acid. Karen and most other wine and food writers recommend fruity, unoaked white wines such as pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc with asparagus, but here in Rioja we’re prone to reds, so what to do? This was the gist of our lunch debate.
To make a long story short, the consensus of opinion was:
- The best red Rioja to drink with white asparagus is young and fruity, better if it’s a cosechero (red vinified from whole berries, much like beaujolais nouveau, but better!)
- Since we all love Rioja and white asparagus, we think that the enjoyment of the meal should outweigh any discussions about how to mask the taste of methione, so our conclusion was: forget everything you’ve heard about wine and food pairings and just have fun!