Spargelzeit, or why the Germans love white asparagus
Spargelzeit is one of those uniquely German things. Much like orange-flavored Diet Coke and Turkish fast food, white asparagus is a food loved country-wide. With the changing of the seasons, Spargelzeit marks the end of the cold, dark winter and the beginning of spring.
As the weather warms up, white asparagus appears in the produce section of LIDL and ALDI, stalks bundled together like pale trees. You can even find it in bunches at the local flea market. If you don't want to cook the white asparagus yourself, nearly every restaurant will be serving a seasonal Spargelzeit dish until the official end of Spargel season around June 24th.
What is white asparagus?
White asparagus and green asparagus are the same vegetable, but each is grown in a different manner. White asparagus is more delicate. Young white asparagus grows buried in dirt, preventing sunlight from reaching the stalks. This results in an albino-like asparagus with a soft, ephemeral flavor. Asparagus is a slow-growing vegetable, with some stalks taking up to three years to show their first tips.
In the U.S., white asparagus stalks are less common. When sold in the supermarket, they tend to be priced at a premium. In Germany, white asparagus is common, and the huge popularity of it makes for relatively cheap prices during the height of Spargelzeit. White asparagus can be found in the off-season jarred or in cans, but much like winter tomatoes, the delicacy is diminished. Jarred white asparagus is mushy and lacks the subtle crunch of fresh asparagus.
Green and white asparagus are prepared in slightly different ways. Green asparagus is peeled from bottom to top, while white asparagus is peeled the other way around.
Beloved German vegetable
Without a doubt, white asparagus is a mainstay of German culinary culture. Called the "royal vegetable" due to its historically high status amongst royal, white asparagus is popular all over Europe. There's no question of national pride for asparagus in Germany, a huge producer of the crop. Spargelzeit is a country-wide phenomenon, much like apple-picking in the fall in the U.S. or grapes in the wine regions of France.
Certain regions of Germany are known for their white asparagus crops. Southwestern Germany, for example, hosts many asparagus-producing towns. Many places hold festivals in honor of their favorite vegetable, and tourists flock to these Spargelfests.
During Spargelzeit, every German food magazine will have entire articles devoted to recipes featuring white asparagus. It's said that during the peak of Spargelzeit, Germans will eat asparagus at least once a day, if not more.
Asparagus, especially white asparagus, has a delicate, fresh flavor. For Spargelzeit asparagus picked in its prime, it's important to let the natural flavor come through the dish. Because of this, restaurants that serve seasonal asparagus dishes prepare their food very simply.
Popular ways of serving white asparagus include topping it with a creamy hollandaise sauce, serving it with potatoes and butter, or cooking it with a thin German ham known as Schinken. Asparagus can also be steamed and served with a minimal dusting of salt and pepper.
Some German chefs, eager to innovate, are doing crazy things with white asparagus. The tender vegetable, having such a delicate flavor, has been used as vehicle for drinks, desserts, and more. Even when served in counter-intuitive ways, Spargel fever is rampant in spring, and the dishes are wildly popular for adventurous foodies.
Westreporter.de's report on Effelder's Spargelfest
Prepping white asparagus
Cooking white asparagus is different than cooking green asparagus. Green varieties tend to turn grayish as they cook, and much like watching beef brown or onions turn translucent, this is an indicator of doneness. White asparagus does not turn colors as it cooks, so it's easy to cook it too long and end up with a sad, overcooked mess. It's important to test the tenderness with a fork and stop cooking it when it's still a little firm.
Because white asparagus has a subtle, delicate flavor, frying and sauteing isn't the best way to cook it. Instead, steam will bring out the asparagus's natural beauty.
Here are some Spargel-licious recipes to try during white asparagus season:
- About.com's German Food guide has a ton of recipes for the white veggie. They also include more about the history and even an etiquette guide to eating and preparing white asparagus in Germany. Spargel is serious business!
- LIke crayfish? Try this asparagus and crayfish recipe, as seen on TV.
- BBC has a lovely recipe for a delicate Spargel soup.
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