Spargelzeit – It’s White Asparagus Time!
During the Spargelsaison, or season of white asparagus, Germans unite in their devotion to this delicate and delicious vegetable which makes its first appearance in mid-April and usually disappears around the end of June.
Enlarge image Two asparagus spears have been found and partially uncovered. (© picture-alliance/dpa) Asparagus officinalis is a leafy plant whose young shoots are known to us as the vegetable asparagus. Cultivated by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, asparagus has long been cherished for its subtle flavors and as one of the first vegetables of spring.
While green asparagus is more common in the United States, it’s the arrival of the white asparagus that sends Europe into a feasting frenzy. White and green asparagus come from the same plant, but in Germany the earth is heaped into knee-high mounds around the asparagus plants to keep the shoots away from sunlight in order to prevent the development of the chlorophyll that would turn them green.
The farmers must keep a close watch on the white asparagus crop, which is typically harvested by hand at dawn. If a tip of a shoot grows beyond the mound and is exposed to the sun, it will turn a light purple color. When a crack appears on the surface of the dirt mound, the farmer takes great care to excavate and cut out the spear. All newly planted asparagus beds may take two to three years of cultivation before they produce a crop. Afterwards, the plants produce for another 20 or so years. In light of these factors, it is easy to see why this labor-intensive crop with a very limited production window can garner high prices on the market.
Enlarge image A seller arranges asparagus at a stand in front of the city hall of Lüneberg, the over 1000-year-old “city of salt.” (© picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb) Since its best the day of the harvest, many Germans purchase their asparagus directly from the farmer at stands set up in the cities or along the roadside. According to the German Agricultural Marketing Board, Germans consume an average of 70,000 tons of asparagus per year. A good portion of this is grown in Germany, and the states of Badem-Württemberg and Lower Saxony, which are particularly large producers, hold festivals and offer tourists activities along the “asparagus routes.”
While asparagus is now grown all over Germany, the plant’s historical roots are in the area around Stuttgart, where it has been grown since the 16th century. Until the 19th century, however, it was still grown exclusively for the royal court. For this reason, it’s earned the nickname Königsgemüse, or royal vegetable.
Enlarge image A restaurant guest eats a portion of fresh asparagus with potatoes, boiled ham and Hollandaise sauce. (© picture-alliance/ dpa) During the Renaissance, asparagus was valued for its assumed medicinal qualities against a variety of ailments and as an aphrodisiac. While these theories have since been disproved, asparagus is a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C and folate, and the stalks are high in fiber. Without the accompanying butter sauce, it is also a low-calorie food.
Methods of preparation range from simple to extravagant. Serving boiled white asparagus with a butter or Hollandaise sauce alongside some thinly sliced black forest ham and new potatoes allows the natural flavors of the asparagus to dominate. Unlike green asparagus, white asparagus must be peeled before using. Many savvy cooks take these peelings and a few whole stalks to make a cream of asparagus soup. Passionate asparagus consumers will want to plan about a pound of asparagus per person as a main dish.