John the Baptist, June 24. Whereas the tender vegetable, especially the green variety, is increasingly available in supermarkets year-round, in Germany asparagus still is a distinctly seasonal product. Just as apples mark the fall season, nothing epitomizes spring quite like this revered white stalk.
While Americans tend to eat more green asparagus, Germans prefer the white variety. The main difference between white and green asparagus is the way they are grown which affects the vegetable's color and flavor. White asparagus grows entirely surrounded by earth which protects the slender stalk from sunlight exposure and thereby keeps it from turning green. Soil is piled up into knee-high banks giving asparagus fields their characteristic appearance. It takes three years for a plant to produce its first tip. The popular vegetable grows best in sandy soil and is cultivated in almost all federal states as well as in neighboring countries. Asparagus is valued for its delicate flavor but also for its high nutritional value. Rich in nutrients and very low in calories, asparagus is indeed a very healthy food.
The states of Baden-Württemberg and Lower Saxony take special pride in being prime asparagus growing regions and both states are home to scenic "Asparagus Routes". The Baden route runs through the towns of Schwetzingen, Reilingen, Karlsruhe and Rastatt. The city of Schwetzingen claims to be the "Asparagus Capital of the World" and like many of the towns along these routes it holds an annual Spargelfest (asparagus festival) which attracts visitors from near and far. During these festivals asparagus aficionados can get their fix of delicious fresh asparagus dishes and enjoy plenty of entertainment including the popular peeling contests. The most prominent of these festivals crown an asparagus queen or king.
During asparagus season, the average German enjoys the delicate flavor of this tender spring vegetable at least once a day which adds up to a national total of over 70,000 tons per year. With annual production averaging under 60,000 tons, Germany also imports asparagus to meet the continuously high demand for the healthy stalks. The vegetable's popularity may in part be rooted in its long history as a luxury vegetable. Going back as far as 2000 BC, the prized vegetable was cultivated by the Ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. During the rule of the French Sun King, Louis XIV, it gained in popularity and was reserved to the tables or the courts. The first document which mentions the cultivation of asparagus in the region around the city of Stuttgart dates back to the 16th century.
When buying asparagus, freshness is the key to the perfect flavor and texture. Gourmets know that it tastes best "picked in the morning, eaten at midday". Make sure the stems are firm, crisp and plump, and have the characteristic velvety sheen. The tips should be intact and firm, a slight purple tinge is normal. If you don't intend to cook them right away, wrap them in a damp kitchen towel and store in the refrigerator's crisper. Preparing asparagus always start with washing the stalks, followed by peeling them with a swivel vegetable peeler. White asparagus is peeled downwards starting just below the tip, whereas green asparagus is usually peeled from bottom towards the tip. The more serious asparagus aficionados keep a special steamer handy which is supposed to help cook the vegetable as gently as possible, preserving more of its flavor. The steamer pots are either slender and tall or shallow and oval-shaped. When using a normal pan, a good trick is to tie the stalks together using kitchen twine. The most common preparation calls for cooking the vegetable in water for about 12-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks. The water may be flavored beforehand by adding some butter, salt, a pinch of sugar and the stems and peel left over from peeling.
Asparagus season gets the creative culinary juices flowing and in Germany practically every restaurant features the tasty vegetable prominently on their menu. The most popular ways of enjoying white asparagus are deliberately simple so as not to overpower the vegetable's delicate flavor: served with melted butter and new potatoes (Spargel mit Butter), with ham (Spargel mit Schinken) or with hollandaise sauce (Spargel mit holländischer Sauce). For the more adventurous fans of this quintessential spring vegetable, Germany's innovative chefs are constantly coming up with new ways to serve the tender stalks as an appetizer, entrée or even as part of dessert.