Right behind the Bains de Saillon, where I recently went swimming to kick off the annual spring fitness burst, is a farmer’s hut where I bought some tiny white asparagus. At home I cooked them in a fine risotto, and I was hooked: asparagus season was upon us.
I went back to photograph some of the beautiful apricot orchards in bloom and the steeps vineyards that touch craggy mountainsides around Saillon. I found myself buying larger asparagus stalks this time, at the Dussex family’s farmer’s market. What a hotbed of activity! Dozens of workers were piling in and out of vans and sorting crate upon crate of this spring vegetable, a delicacy since ancient times. Maurice Dussex showed me how the assembly line works for cleaning, sorting and cutting asparagus; the rows of vegetables themselves, in the nearby fields, aren’t much to see since only the tips show.
I thought it must be impossible to sell this much of the vegetable but it turned out the crates were all reserved – restaurants throughout the country rush to get a supply.
Valais is famous in Switzerland for its asparagus, which is grown mainly between Fully and Saillon, where sandy soil from the Rhone river banks is perfect for this delicacy. You can buy direct from a number of producers; the Valais web site has some nice recipes if you’re short of ideas about what to do with it.
Maurice and I also had a good chat about wine, since the Dussex family has a cellar, Cave de Châtillon, in Saillon. We had a look at the area where they are considering a wine tourism walking trail. We talked about some of the high vineyards above the town, old-style vineyards and their own, environmentally conscious vine parcels, and I came home doubly enthused about my asparagus, with plans to bake it this time, a change because I would be trying it with a different wine.
You can pair asparagus with six Valais whites or a simple Pinot Noir, according to the Saillon asparagus growers web site. We had a Petite Arvine from Sierre with our risotto, which worked very well. The Saillon web site suggests that Arvine works well with asparagus and cheese dishes. It suggests that if you have Pinot Blanc it should be dry and an older vintage. Paien works well with a spicier, more strongly flavoured than usual dish. And here, I admit, I failed: I opted to cook a recipe from the NY Times, which turned out to be over-the-top American – too many ingredients and they all fought for attention. Chick peas, hazelnuts, two cheeses, asparagus buried under it all. My suggestion is to go for a more classic and familiar dish if you’re trying a new wine.
Happily, the Dussex Paien (CHF22 cellar price) was a fine wine and I sent aside part of my main dish and sat back to enjoy the wine. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a white wine that goes by three names in Valais: Paien, Heida and its grape varietal name, Savagnin Blanc. Familiar? It’s the grape that is used for vin jaune in the French Jura.
It is a big wine, generally high in alcohol and rich, with luscious pear aromas, sometimes notes of rhubarb as well.
Saillon publishes a handy brochure (French) on asparagus, available around the town at shops and wineries, as well as online as a PDF: good recipes, a bushel of information and tips. Their suggestion is 500 g per person for a main dish and 300 g if you’re serving a starter.
The town just held its annual asparagus festival 4 May, but the town is a wonderful centre for a day of touring at any time from May to November. Among other things, it is famous for having the world’s smallest cadastral (zoned) vineyard, which belongs to the Dalai Lama.