Australian-style asparagus rolls consist of asparagus tips, often from a can, rolled in buttered, thinly sliced bread. An alternative or addition to the sandwich plate, they seem to have arrived in the mid-1920s, around the same time that Gordon Edgell began canning asparagus in Bathurst. In Australia, there were earlier recipes for asparagus rolls but these referred to white bread rolls, hollowed out and filled with chopped asparagus in a cream sauce.
The earliest mention I can find for asparagus rolls as we know them today is in 1925 when the Northern Star in Lismore commented on ladies’ afternoon bridge parties, writing:
Asparagus rolls replace the hackneyed sandwich on some afternoon tea tables. Very thin bread and butter and a tip of the vegetable form the ingredients for this dainty dish. Rolls are garnished in tiny shavings of olive and tomato.
The stalks of canned asparagus become soft and easy to eat, making it a neater choice for the savoury roll. It was at first imported from America, where canning had begun in the late 19th century. An advertisement for the Californian Del Monte brand appeared in 1926, featuring directions for making asparagus rolls. However, a search of American newspapers failed to find examples of the recipe in that country, where the term ‘asparagus roll’ seemed to apply to spears of asparagus wrapped in ham.
In an era when ‘dainty’ food was much lauded, asparagus rolls acquired an elevated social status. A story in The Age in 1927 accused them of being “The thin edge of the wedge” in a process of gradual one-upmanship among a group of suburban acquaintances. The escalating lavishness and formality of suppers accompanying their card nights began when one hostess served asparagus rolls instead of rough-and-ready sandwiches made from the left-over roast.
The asparagus roll maintained its popularity for decades and was a feature of buffet suppers at my parents’ place through the 1950s and ’60s. It seems to be a distinctively antipodean dish. As with the pavlova and the Anzac biscuit, New Zealanders also claim the asparagus roll as their own. I did find one mention in a London paper from 1955. The Evening Standard reported that:
‘Minnie, daughter of the Guildhall cat, stole an asparagus roll during a big reception last night and munched it sitting astride one of the shoes of the recently unveiled sculpture of Sir Winston Churchill.’