U.S. chefs know better but the regular consumer shopping at the supermarket just doesn’t know that the larger, thicker asparagus spears are the best-tasting ones.
Rick Durkin, director of business development for Crystal Valley Foods, based in Miami, said top U.S. chefs will pay a premium for jumbo and extra-large asparagus spears but U.S. consumers typically need a discount to buy that size. He said that is not the case in Europe, where the larger spears are a sought-after commodity.
“If I have four containers left (of the larger spears) after I finish servicing chefs, I have customers in Europe that will take them in a minute,” he said.
Durkin said the industry is partially to blame because it has not done a good job merchandising this product to the consumer. He said the industry’s advertising as well information on packages and recipe tags should tout the larger sizes and teach consumers how to use them. He said an effort should also be made to educate retail buyers and merchandisers who also toil under the misperception that the thin spears are the best. “Bigger really is better,” he quipped.
Durkin explained that each spear has the same number of fibers running the length of the spear whether it is pencil thin or as thick as a Magic Marker. “If it is thin, it has a greater percentage of fibrous material. If it is thick it has more meat or vegetable tissue, which makes it more tender when you cook it.
While most chef know this, Durkin said many still undercook it, especially when grilling. “You have to cook it like a good steak,” he said. “It needs 10 to 12 minutes on the grill. If you do that, the sugars in the asparagus will caramelize and it can taste like a shiitake mushroom.”
While these previous paragraphs might seem more like a culinary lesson than a merchandising tip from a produce supplier, they do have applicability in the marketing of Peruvian asparagus. Maybe because Europeans have been eating the better, more-tender spears, green asparagus sales in that part of the world have been growing tremendously. This additional market for Peru’s growers and shippers has increased the demand for their product and caused it to be higher priced in the United States. “The European market is very strong right now,” Durkin said. “Because of the exchange rate, Peruvian shippers get more bang for their buck by going to Europe, and the demand is up.”
As a company, Durkin said Crystal Valley is focused on the U.S. market but the European understanding of larger sizes does give him an outlet for that product when it is in abundance. The firm’s focus on servicing the entire United States was never more evident than last fall when Crystal Valley opened an office on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. Durkin said the office, its loading dock and a companion loading dock farther north in Salinas, CA, allow the company to service its customers from Miami, Los Angeles and Salinas.
Most of the company’s asparagus is flown into Miami, and then fumigated and certified before it is trucked to the West Coast or delivered directly to customers throughout the country. “We have had direct lift (airfreighting) to L.A., but in many cases we get it there faster by coming through Miami and team trucking it to L.A. in three days.”
He said there is not very much air freight capacity from Peru to Los Angeles and what is available is expensive. The Los Angeles office is staffed by several sales and sourcing specialists, including Sales Manager Brian Douglas and his team: Marcelino Valencia, sales; Bernadette Berumen, sales; Anthony Feria, sales coordinator; and Hector Carillo, market sales.
Besides offering more sales opportunities, Crystal Valley used the Southern California team as a conduit to sourcing product in Mexico and California. While Peruvian asparagus continues to be the company’s number one product, Durkin said the firm has seen growth in products such as bok choy, snow peas and French beans. “Twenty years ago, Peruvian asparagus represented 90 percent of our volume; today we have grown that volume to 1.5 million cartons, but it is probably only 40 percent of our business.”