For those in the asparagus business, the ’gras isn’t always greener on the other side. It also can be purple or white. And the other side is finding a small niche market for these unique specialty items.
Compared to the traditional green spears, white asparagus is more tender and has a mild flavor and purple asparagus has a slightly sweeter flavor. Most of it is produced in Peru and Mexico.
“Specialty asparagus is still a niche market, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the El Centro-based California Asparagus Commission. “I believe any purple asparagus grown in California is marketed regionally to restaurants, smaller retailers and farmers markets.”
California does not produce white asparagus in marketable volume, Watte Angulo said, because the crop is labor-intensive and the state’s growers can’t compete with the vast labor pools in other countries.
Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association coordinator Priscilla Lleras said media chefs are sparking consumer interest.
“I would say that a major influence that has enabled the increase in consumption are the TV network cooking shows that have given U.S. households new ideas on how to prepare white and purple asparagus,” she said.
Many in the industry feel that offering white and/or purple asparagus along with green balances out their programs.
At Maurice A. Auerbach Inc., Secaucus, N.J., president and chief executive officer Paul Auerbach said the company always has white in its inventory and sometimes stocks purple.
“It’s a good complementary item (to the popular green spears),” he said. “We’ve developed a trade for it.”
According to Walter Yager, chief executive officer of Doral, Fla.-based Alpine Fresh, purple hasn’t been as lucrative since it fills such a small market, and due to an erratic growing schedule, it’s difficult to time production with customer needs. Peruvian white asparagus, however, is steady and brought in every week, he said.
“We can produce (white asparagus) 52 weeks out of the year — it’s very stable,” he said. “It’s not a huge business but just steady. We’ve found good retailers who have found a niche for this item.”
In Michigan, purple asparagus has also found a small niche.
“Purple does sell pretty decent in Michigan,” said Randy Vande Guchte, president of Hudsonville-based Superior Sales, Inc. “I think it’s more of a local support deal. We have a retailer who orders it fairly regularly.”