By Teri Weiss
Special to The Citizen
This year’s Spargel Season is in full swing! To many Germans Spargel (white asparagus) literally epitomizes springtime. The harvesting and eating “season” eagerly awaited by food lovers begins each year early to mid-April and traditionally ends on June 24, the feast day of St. John, adhering to the old farmers’ almanac rule: “Kirschen rot, Spargel tot” (when cherries are red, spargel is dead). The more practical real reason: asparagus plants must “rest” to gather strength for next year’s growth.
During these roughly two-and-a-half months (and for the rest of the year), Germans consume over 70,000 tons of the elegant pale vegetable, according to the German Agricultural Marketing Board Central Marketing-Gesellschaft der deutschen Agrarwirtschaft mbH.
Asparagus is the leafy plant of the lily family whose young shoots actually are the vegetable. Originally cultivated by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, asparagus has long been cherished for its delicate flavor, and as one of the first vegetables of spring.
Germany’s white asparagus is grown entirely submerged in earth in fields of long, foil- covered rows of knee-high sandy soil mounds which protects the slender stalks from sunlight and prevents them from photosynthesizing and turning green. The lack of exposure produces the vegetable’s subtle flavor, less robust than that of green asparagus. Spargel is cut just before the tips emerge.
Documents indicate that the roots of German asparagus are to be found in the area around Stuttgart, where it has been grown since the 1500s. Until the 19th century it was planted exclusively for the ducal and the royal Baden and Wuerttemberg courts, earning Spargel the nickname Königsgemüse, or royal vegetable. It has also been called “Elfenbein zum Essen” (edible ivory) or “weißes Gold” (white gold).
Remarkably rich in nutrients but low in calories, asparagus is a very healthy food indeed. It packs a nutritional punch: 93% water, 2% protein, 4% carbohydrates, only 0.2% fats, 150 calories per kilo, contains potassium, calcium, iron, phosphorus and nitrogen as well as Vitamins A,E and K.
Baden-Württemberg is one of the major asparagus-growing regions and has its own scenic “Asparagus Route” which runs 136 km from the asparagus-producing town of Schwetzingen via Reilingen, Karlsruhe and Rastatt to Scherzheim. In fact, the city of Schwetzingen claims to be the “Asparagus Capital of the World” and proudly holds an annual Spargelfest (asparagus festival), as do a number of other towns in “Spargelland”.
There is even a Spargelmuseum in Bavaria for true devotees. Their website is a treasure trove (in German) of asparagus information as well as numerous addresses and recipes on the subject.
How It’s Served & Local Restaurants
Between April and June, nearly every restaurant in and around Baden-Württemberg and beyond prominently features white asparagus on their menu during “Spargelzeit” or asparagus time.
German asparagus is “classically” served with melted butter and new potatoes (Spargel mit Butter), or with hollandaise sauce (Spargel mit holländischer Sauce), with various kinds of ham (Spargel mit Schinken) or with salmon or shrimp (Spargel mit Lachs oder Garnelen), with eggs (Spargel mit Ei), and any number of other innovative additions.
One fine local side dish treat especially with spargel is the Swabian crepe called “Kratzete” (scratched thin pancake) served, for example, in the nearby Stuttgart suburb Spargelbesen in Fellbach (Schmidener Feld),
Spargelbesen in Fellbach April to June, daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Address: Höhe 1 (Schmidener Feld between Schmiden und Fellbach) 70736 Fellbach Reservations Tel: 0711 53 41 28
How To Cook It
At home methods of spargel preparation can also range from simple to extravagant. Asparagus aficionados believe that asparagus should be cooked “the quicker the better.” There is nothing quite like a fresh bunch of plump, straight stalks with crown buds tightly closed, right out of field, garden or market stall and into boiling water.
First – Trim and Peel: Unlike green asparagus, white asparagus has a tough, somewhat bitter peel that must be removed before cooking: Trim the lower 1/2 inch from the ends and peel each spear downward from the crown, then cook preferably standing in simmering water or vegetable broth (water, salt, sugar, lemon juice and butter).
Tip: The peelings and several whole stalks simmered for a while and served with whole cream make a really tasty Spargelsuppe (asparagus soup).
Cook: Al dente between 10 to 15 minutes steamed or in the oven with a little water in the pan to make steam, cover pan to cook. Season with salt and fresh cracked black pepper, and coat lightly with melted butter.
Wherever you enjoy spargel this spring, at home or in a Gasthaus or restaurant, and whichever way you prefer it, indulge in this remarkable regional German delicacy while the season is “on.”