It is impossible to overstate the German obsession with white asparagus – typically served with butter and ham. And with around 125,000 tonnes consumed during ‘Spargelzeit season’ from April to June, more is definitely more
Think of German food and the British mind turns to Bavarian classics: dumplings, sauerkraut, thick slabs of pork in a puddle of beer-based sauce, all browns and beiges and, though often a great pleasure for the taste buds, less than easy on both the eye and the digestive system.
Yet though meat and potatoes are unarguably a staple of German cuisine (so fiercely regional that to generalise it as a national one is considered almost offensive), these do not form the basis for the dishes the Germans celebrate the most. They stick firmly to a seasonal culinary calendar, enjoying mountains of berries and stone fruits in the summer months and tucking into pumpkins and gourds when the leaves start to fall.
You think the way to a German’s stomach is with a half-metre sausage? Think again. It is white asparagus that makes the German heart beat faster; long, thick spears grown under mounds of earth (unlike green asparagus, which is grown above ground) and served up with butter and ham. It’s impossible to overstate just how much the Germans love their “white gold”: they consume around 125,000 tonnes of it a year.
Spargelzeit, or white asparagus season, officially begins in April, and harvesting finishes punctually on 24 June, the Christian celebration of the nativity of John the Baptist. The start of the season coincides pleasingly with the first rays of warm sunshine that follow a long, cold winter, and there’s a palpable buzz in the air when pop-up stands sprout all over towns and villages and the first mounds of white asparagus appear at farmers’ markets. Spears are graded by quality, neatly stacked in piles and sprayed with water to keep them fresh; huge industrial peelers offer their service to those who find removing the bitter skin too mundane a task. The only time I’ve ever seen the Germans properly embrace a queuing system is while waiting to be served at a white asparagus stall.
In Germany’s prime asparagus-producing regions, there are gourmet trails to hike along, providing opportunities to stop at farms and restaurants and sample regional variations on a white asparagus theme, from traditional asparagus-based dishes to potent homemade schnapps. At an asparagus festival – possibly during a spear-peeling contest – you might even spot a white asparagus queen, a young woman with a strong connection to Germany’s king of vegetables, perhaps the daughter of a grower, whose duty it is to represent and promote their region’s produce.
It might sound like a rare German frivolity but it’s a role to be taken seriously: the election process involves applications forms and interviews and white asparagus queens are expected to dedicate every minute of their time to the job for the full duration of the season.
Across Germany, white asparagus is mostly – and arguably best – served plainly, cooked in a light stock and plated up with melted butter, boiled potatoes or savoury pancakes and a couple of slices of cooked or cured ham. Traditional restaurants offer menus dedicated to this seasonal favourite, offering soups, salads and warm spears served with hollandaise sauce. It’s also served as a sort of add-on to other regional favourites, piled upon a schnitzel or a slice of saumagen (a haggis-like specialty from the Pfalz region), or stacked alongside a pair of hot, meaty bratwürst. When it comes to any plate of food in Germany, white asparagus is no exception: more is definitely more. That’s not a stereotype that will ever be crushed.
White asparagus is tricky to pair with wine because of its mild but slightly bitter flavour. It’s best to stick with a fresh, dry white and take into consideration what you’re eating your asparagus with: if your dish is simple, choose a silvaner or a riesling, and go for a Weissburgunder (pinot blanc), if there’s hollandaise involved.