Stalk of the Town: Growing Asparagus in the East Bay

Barbara Cecchini cradles her family's signature crop.

Asparagus is notoriously difficult to grow. After a seed is planted, it takes at least two years before it matures, and the harvesting process is particularly labor-intensive.

"Every individual spear has to be cut by hand, carefully, under the ground, so the next crown can pop up," says Alli Cecchini Erggelet, whose family has been growing asparagus in the Brentwood area for nearly a century. "It’s backbreaking work that takes a lot of time and money, and there is no mechanization.

"It’s just too hard," she adds. "You have five or six spears all coming out of the ground at different heights, so it’s always a judgment call."

The marshy conditions of the Sacramento Delta, extending into eastern Contra Costa County, have provided ideal conditions for generations of asparagus farms, such as Erggelet’s fifth-generation Cecchini and Cecchini. Unfortunately, the last decade has not been kind to California growers. Due to a combination of rising labor costs and increased competition from Mexico, the amount of land devoted to the state’s asparagus industry has shrunk from 20,000 acres in 2007 to currently less than 2,000. Faced with dwindling profits, Erggelet, along with her parents, Bob and Barbara Cecchini, made the difficult decision to sell their 1,100-acre farm—the last large-scale asparagus operation in Contra Costa County—two years ago.

But hope—like asparagus, typically the first warm-weather crop to appear in Bay Area markets—springs eternal. The Cecchinis worked with a state conservation program to preserve 550 acres of their property as sustainable farmland in perpetuity. Erggelet founded First Generation Farmers, a nonprofit dedicated to youth agricultural education, and currently runs Urban Edge Farm, a 34-acre organic operation where she, her husband, and her parents grow wine grapes, stone fruit, and vegetables—including asparagus.

"We set aside five acres, mostly for personal use and to sell at the local farmers market," Erggelet says. "How could we not?"

For more information on Urban Edge Farm, visit theurbanedgefarm.com.

 

Asparagus Pro Tips

When it comes to store-bought asparagus, Erggelet readily admits, "I’m a huge critic. My blood is so far into it. I’ve never purchased it at a market. I’ve never bought it out of season, so I know how much flavor it can have." Here, she offers advice to home chefs.

Bigger is better: "The biggest misconception about asparagus is the smaller it is, the more flavor it has," Erggelet explains. "A skinnier spear means the plant it came from is older and weaker. The larger the diameter, the more flavor it has."

Be picky: "If you hold a spear by the base and there’s any limp movement, that means it’s old. It should be bright green and shouldn’t be stringy. If there’s a rubber band around it, there shouldn’t be any indentation in the skin. And if there is any flowering at the spear that means it was picked too late. You want to harvest asparagus at the peak of its life. When you bite into it, water should burst into your mouth like when you bite into a watermelon."

Asparagus two ways: "I like to blanch it for a minute or two and then put it on ice in a container. Then I’ll take it out and eat it cold, either plain or with a little olive oil and salt," Erggelet says. "I also like to eat it hot right out of the broiler: seven minutes on each side, and then topped with olive oil and garlic salt. When asparagus season comes, I try to eat it almost every day."

 

Recipe: Grilled Asparagus With Pounded Parsley-Walnut Pesto and Farm Egg

From Curtis deCarion, chef-owner of Esin, Revel, and Social Bird

Asparagus ingredients:

  • 1 pound asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 hard-boiled farm egg

 

Pesto ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons shallots, diced small
  • ½ cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • ½ cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 tablespoons muscatel vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

 

To make the asparagus:

Trim tough ends of asparagus. Place it in a mixing bowl and coat with olive oil and salt. Cook the asparagus on a hot grill until lightly charred. Pull it off the grill and place on a platter.

Prepare the pounded parsley–walnut pesto, and drizzle it all over the asparagus. Grate a hard-boiled farm egg on top and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.

 

To make the pesto:

In a mortar and pestle, combine shallots and parsley and gently pound. Add almonds, and gently pound again, making sure the almonds are still chunky. Add salt, olive oil, and vinegar. Stir to combine. Adjust seasoning if necessary.