As apples mark the Fall season, nothing epitomizes Spring like the revered white stalks of Spargel (Asparagus)! The green variety is more popular in North America, because it’s available in supermarkets year-round. However, Germans prefer the seasonal white variety. The difference: the white variety grows entirely surrounded by earth. In turn, this protects the slender stalk from sunlight exposure and keeps it from turning green. This also affects the subtle flavor of it. Rich in nutrients and very low in calories, asparagus is a healthy and delicious food!
It takes three years for an asparagus plant to produce its first tip. Soil is piled up into knee-high banks, which give the fields their characteristic appearance. The popular vegetable grows best in sandy soil and is cultivated in almost all federal states as well as in neighboring countries. However, there are two places in particular that are famous for growing Spargel!
The states of Baden-Württemberg and Lower Saxony take special pride in being prime asparagus growing regions. In fact, both states are even home to scenic “Asparagus Routes”. The Baden route runs through the towns of Schwetzingen, Reilingen, Karlsruhe and Rastatt. The city of Schwetzingen claims to be the “Asparagus Capital of the World.” Like many of the towns along these routes, it holds an annual Spargelfest that attracts visitors from all over. During these festivals, asparagus aficionados can get their fix of delicious fresh Spargel dishes. There are plenty of entertainment options too, including the popular peeling contests! The most prominent of these festivals even crown an asparagus queen or king!
During Spargelzeit, the average German enjoys the delicate flavor of this tender spring vegetable at least once a day. This, in turn, adds up to a national total of over 70,000 tons per year! However, the annual production of asparagus averages just under 60,000 tons. This means that Germany imports asparagus to meet the continuously high demand for the healthy stalks. The vegetable’s popularity may in part be rooted in its long history as a luxury vegetable. Going back as far as 2000 BCE, the prized vegetable was cultivated by the Ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. Throughout the rule of King Louis XIV, it gained in popularity and was reserved to the tables of the courts. The first document that mentions the cultivation of this vegetable in the region around the city of Stuttgart dates to the 16th century!
When buying asparagus, freshness is the key to the perfect flavor and texture. Gourmets know that it tastes best when “picked in the morning, eaten at midday”. Make sure the stems are firm, crisp and plump, and have the characteristic velvety sheen. The tips should be intact and firm, and a slight purple tinge is normal. If you don’t intend to cook them right away, wrap them in a damp kitchen towel and store in the refrigerator’s crisper. Preparation always start with washing the stalks, followed by peeling them with a swivel vegetable peeler. The white variety is peeled downwards starting just below the tip. In contrast, green asparagus is usually peeled from the bottom towards the tip. The more serious asparagus aficionados keep a special steamer handy. This is supposed to help cook the vegetable as gently as possible, preserving more of its flavor! The steamer pots are either slender and tall or shallow and oval-shaped. When using a normal pan, a good trick is to tie the stalks together using kitchen twine. The most common preparation calls for cooking the vegetable in water for about 12-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks. The water may be flavored beforehand by adding some butter, salt, a pinch of sugar and the stems and peel left over from peeling.
The Most Popular Spargel-based Meals
Spargelzeit gets the creative culinary juices flowing for people! In Germany especially, practically every restaurant features the tasty vegetable prominently on their menu. The most popular ways of enjoying white asparagus are deliberately simple. This is done so as not to overpower the vegetable’s delicate flavor. It is traditionally served with melted butter and potatoes (Spargel mit Butter), with ham (Spargel mit Schinken) or with hollandaise sauce (Spargel mit holländischer Sauce). For the more adventurous fans of this quintessential spring vegetable, there are always more options. Germany’s innovative chefs are constantly coming up with new ways to serve the tender stalks as an appetizer or entrée. In some places, it is even served as a part of dessert now!