In Germany, April showers bring Spargel.
Known to us English-speakers as asparagus, Spargel—specifically the white variety—is a celebrated national symbol in Germany and a sure sign that spring has arrived. Affectionately called “the vegetable of kings” by some Germans (mostly because, back in the day, only royalty could afford to eat it), as soon as the white stalks start popping up in markets, you can sense the country tremble with excitement.
The official debut of German-grown Spargel is still a couple weeks away, but that has not stopped market vendors and grocery stores from whetting everyone’s appetite with early-bird white asparagus from Greece. Even though Germans don’t consider Grecian Spargel the crème of the crop, I bought my first bunch this weekend out of curiosity and impatience—I, too, share Germany’s enthusiasm for asparagus.
In my endeavor to eat somewhat seasonally, asparagus is perhaps the only vegetable I refuse to cheat with out-of-season. To me, asparagus heralds the impending bounty of the growing season, and I want to preserve that magic. So when asparagus season (Spargelzeit auf Deutsch) rolls around, I become gastronomically giddy.
As I channeled my excitement to write this blog post, I soon discovered I was not the first with the desire to tell the Spargelzeit story. There are piles of other articles that have already done it justice.
So, why reinvent the wheel? At the end of this post, you’ll find a sampling of some of the articles I found. Within the first couple sentences of these pieces, you’ll get a sense for the fanfare around Spargel in Germany.
(And to the Germans reading this, I recognize I am generalizing your culture’s obsession with Spargel. If you actually don’t like it all that much, I apologize for assuming otherwise.)
If you don’t have the time or curiosity to browse those links, here are the “Spargelbasics.”
While the dawn of Spargel cultivation was around 2000 BC in the then-major civilizations (Rome, Greece, and Egypt), it reportedly first sprouted in Germany in the 16th century.
During the Renaissance, Spargel was extolled for its presumed medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, though the truth of these claims has since been falsified. Still, no one can confidently explain the origins of Germany’s obsession.
Nowadays, the city of Schwetzigen considers itself the world’s Spargel capital, and is the center of the “Asparagus Triangle,” a trio of western German towns hailed for their Spargel-growing prowess. The city even commemorates the veggie with a statue (see below).
Official Spargelzeit is mid-April through late-June, when growing conditions in Germany are optimal (although I wonder what this year’s funky weather will do to the harvest).
White and green asparagus are actually one in the same plant: Asparagus officinalis. The difference lies in how they are grown. White asparagus is grown under mounds of soil to prevent the sun from turning the stalks green. Apparently harvesting them is also more labor intensive than their green brethren.
But Spargel’s health benefits may outweigh the labor costs. It is a low-calorie snack packed with vitamins and minerals, and is apparently good for cleansing the system, if you know what I mean.
To eat white asparagus, you have to peel it before cooking (unlike the green variety). Boiling seems to be the preferred, if not the only way of cooking it. In fact, Germans even have special pots specifically designed for boiling Spargel.
Spargel is traditionally served drowning in Hollandaise sauce and accompanied by Schinken (ham), Kartoffeln (potatoes), and a glass of white wine.
During Spargelzeit, Germans supposedly dine on the “edible ivory” at least once a day. Collectively, they consume an average of 70,000 tons of Spargel per year.
Did I mention Germans really love Spargel…
“Buried treasure: white asparagus” in The CS Monitor
“White asparagus time in Germany” on the German Mission to South Africa’s website
“Land where asparagus is king of spring” on Boston.com
“Spargelzeit: Asparagus Season in Germany!” on germanfoods.org
“Deutschlicious: German white asparagus season” in Honest Cooking (includes a recipe for a traditional Spargel dish)
“The White Asparagus is Here” on German World Online (includes wine-pairing recommendations)
“Asparagus: Green versus White, Not Just a Different Color” on donajuana.com (a more agronomical perspective)
“Edible Ivory: Germans Are Obsessed with Asparagus” on Speigel Online (a snarky take on the obsession)