In Germany, white asparagus is Spring’s culinary status symbol. The fine flavor, soft texture that melts in the mouth and its highly versatile applications in all kinds of dishes are unique to this humble vegetable. Enough reasons why the entire quantity of German white asparagus is consumed in the home country. Following are some of the main reasons for Germany’s love affair with white asparagus.
Asparagus officinalis is the Latin name for the rod-like vegetable that’s harvested and eaten all around the world. China, Peru, Mexico and Germany are the four largest producers, Peru the largest exporter. There are three kind of asparagus deriving from the same plant: most common is the green asparagus, which grows out of the soil, catches sunlight, develops chlorophyll and is plugged from the Earth year-round. The white asparagus grows underground inside mounds of soil and harvested just before the tip breaks through the soil surface. The lack of sunlight and chlorophyll significantly impact the flavor of the end product. The third variation is purple asparagus, or white asparagus with a purple tip. The coloration happens during a short period when the tip breaks through the soil, catches some sunlight and turns purple as a result, just before its harvest.
Harvesting white asparagus
While the green asparagus grows year round, the white asparagus season only lasts 8 weeks, from April 22 to June 25. Over 2,200 German asparagus farmers grow almost exclusively white asparagus on 53,000 acres. No other vegetable gets as much dedicated land as the “white gold.” A small asparagus production operation requires a minimum of 5 square acres of suitable soil for an asparagus crop. Even with modern equipment, an acre of asparagus may only produce 2 tons of the vegetable per year – a very small amount per acre considering that asparagus must be very carefully dug out by hand so as not to damage the stalk. Each acre being grown requires between 10 – 30 hours of care per week of back-breaking, arduous manual labor. The white lances have to be carefully gestochen (dug out, or “cut”) from the soil in one single swoop. Thousands of temporary migrant workers come to Germany every spring to work as Spargelstecher (asparagus cutter). Based on the high manual labor costs and short shelf life, the retail price per kilo varies between 16.00 Euro and 18.00 Euro per kilo , or about $8.00/lbs – a hefty price willingly paid by most Germans of all income classes, as the culinary, cultural and communal enjoyment outweighs the costs.
Green asparagus is the most common variety eaten around the world. Only Germany developed a strong preference over the centuries, almost a gustatory infatuation, with white asparagus. Purple asparagus is liked especially in France. The taste difference are remarkable. Green asparagus has a bitter, hearty, broccoli-like taste. And after digestion, the urine develops a stinging, acidic smell. In contrast, white asparagus – after it’s peeled and steamed properly – almost melts in the mouth and only leaves a distinct aftertaste. And it’s best consumed right after the harvest. An old farmers rule dictates that asparagus is best “Morgens gestochen und mittags verzehrt” (picked in the morning and eaten at lunch). Roughly 50% of all white asparagus purchased in Germany is obtained from roadside stands which guarantees its freshness. White asparagus matches extremely well with a large variety of sauces, meats, fish and potatoes. See our recipe collection.
Like most vegetables, most of the asparagus’ net weight (95%) is simply water. But the water and lots of fiber pack a healthy punch. Vitamins A, C, B1, B2, and E, seven essential minerals and many trace elements, among them potassium and asparagin acid makes, give asparagus strong diuretic properties that positively effect the metabolism. Even better: asparagus contains only a few calories: between 100 and 180 cal per kilogram (2 lbs.).
Already the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans touted the purifying and stimulating effects of asparagus. Ancient sources even praised asparagus as aphrodisiac, however, modern researchers did not find proof for this claim. Maybe the unique shape of the vegetable had something to do with the claim. Yet, the taste the tender, silken tip of a well prepared white asparagus tip has some erotic qualities. It was not for nothing, that Madame de Pompadour called the tender tips of white asparagus “points d’amour” (love tips).
Author: Arnim von Friedeburg