Apple and Grape harvests symbolize Autumn in Germany, and Spargelzeit, the two month white asparagus season, is an eagerly anticipated sign of spring. Depending on the weather, the season for asparagus begins some time in April and lasts until St. John the Baptist’s feast day June 24, and for those weeks the country is gripped by ‘Asparagus Fever’. As on average each man, woman and child eats four pounds of asparagus during that time, and there must be some who don’t like the ‘Royal Vegetable’, Koenigsemuese as it is known, this must also mean there will be those amongst the population who are eating very little else.
Originally from Asia Minor, around two thousand years ago green asparagus spread to countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea where it became a delicacy. At the time the word ‘asparagus’ was used by the Greeks for most stalk type vegetables but eventually described just this one, which the Romans transported, together with many other plant species, when crossing the Alps to conquer northern Europe’s ‘uncivilised’ tribes.
Asparagus fell out of favour after 300 AD and did not reappear until the 11th century, although then only as a medicinal herb usually grown in German monastery gardens and prepared by monks. It was not until the reign of Louis XIV the French Sun King, who grew asparagus in hot houses for his year round enjoyment, that asparagus regained popularity in Europe as a luxury vegetable reserved for the tables of nobles and the various royal courts. Then in 16th century Germany ‘Spargel’ began to be cultivated around Stuttgart, and gained a nickname, ‘The Royal Vegetable’, because, as in France, it was only available to the nobility.
Nevertheless Germany’s love affair with asparagus had begun. By the middle of the 19th century it was popular with all levels of society, with ‘Spargelzeit’ now a huge event throughout the country, and one that during the season is hard to escape. Market vendors provide free access to ‘Asparagus Shelling Machines’, so customers buy their asparagus and then politely line up to await their turn. Saves a lot of time battling with the special asparagus peeler that invariably has a mind of its own.
There are multiple ‘White Asparagus Menu’s’ in five star restaurants and local pubs, asparagus competitions with Kings and Queens judged and crowned by the size of the asparagus stalk they have either grown or bought, asparagus peeling contests, asparagus seminars and cooking courses, festivals, tours, road side asparagus booths and of course a choice of ‘Asparagus Routes’.
Even out of season the asparagus fields on the 85 mile, Baden Asparagus Route and The Lower Saxony Asparagus Route, 466 miles, are easily identifiable until autumn by their decorative leafy green plants and bell shaped white flowers, followed later by red berries. While both routes pass not only asparagus fields but also museums, a mass of cultural and historical sites, lakes, beautiful landscapes and, in season, restaurants offering all types of Spargel specialties and combinations. Some of them more than a little bizarre.
Schwetzingen, the self proclaimed ‘asparagus capital , is where 17th century Elector Palatine Karl Theodor started a trend of the world’ amongst the ‘Princedoms’ by ordering asparagus to be grown in the grounds of his summer residence, green asparagus in those days. In May the grounds of the castle echo with the sounds of a Spargelzeit festival, while on the market place just outside the castle gates stands a bronze monument shaded by chestnut trees, commemorating the ‘Spargelfrauen’. The women who in the past had to first work from very early in the morning digging out asparagus, and then stand and sell what they had harvested.
A 15th century tower in the idyllic city of Schrobenhausen, upper Bavaria, houses the European Asparagus Museum, with an iconic Andy Warhol painting of an asparagus and exhibits on everything ranging from horticulture and history to recipes and medical science.
White and green asparagus come from the same plant, the green variety however, grown in flat beds exposed to the sun, has a long history and is still the most popular worldwide, whereas Germany’s favourite white asparagus is more tender and creamy than green asparagus with a sweeter taste, in fact there are those who after trying it for the first time think it has no taste.
White asparagus spears need to be blanched, so, to ensure there is no contact with the sun to turn them green, knee high earth is continually molded around them as they push up through the earth. This was a method first discovered by the Romans but not followed in Germany until the mid 17th century, after which green Spargel fell out of fashion and never returned to its former popularity. A close watch must be kept on a white asparagus crop because, as it searches for light, the leaf bud of an asparagus spear lengthens underground and a tip exposed to the sun will turn light purple so, beginning at dawn, the spears are harvested individually by hand as the mounds begin to crack, but before the shoots break through the earth.
Asparagus harvesting involves digging down to cut the spear under the earth, and has to be done by hand with a special knife as a machine would break the stalks. These days it is mainly skilled migrant workers who cut out an average of 100 spears an hour and, as asparagus grows quickly, often work through the afternoon to bring in the days second harvest. It takes two to three years for a newly planted asparagus bed to produce a first crop, fields need constant care before the harvest, and each stalk must be taken from the beds individually, so the manpower involved means asparagus starts the season by being very expensive and as the weeks pass, although the price drops, it never becomes inexpensive.
Nevertheless Spargelzeit for Germany’s many asparagus lovers is a high point of Spring. The highly anticipated and delicious seasonal delicacy which disappears as quickly as it arrives, both from the plate and the field.
Photos by Elya (top) and Immanuel Giel (middle)