Autumn in Germany means Apple and Grape harvests, and Spring the eagerly anticipated Spargelzeit. The two month white asparagus season. Depending on the weather it begins some time in April and lasts until just after Summer Solstice, on St. John the Baptistís feast day June 24, and for those weeks the country is gripped by Asparagus Fever.
On average each man, woman and child eats four pounds of asparagus during that time, and as there must be those who donít like the 'Royal Vegetable', Koenigsgemuese, this must also mean there will be some who are eating very little else.
Originally from Asia Minor, around two thousand years ago green asparagus spread to countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, becaming a delicacy. At the time 'asparagus' was used by the Greeks to describe most stalk type vegetables but eventually just this one, which the Romans transported together with many other plant species when crossing the Alps to conquer northern Europeís 'uncivilized' tribes.
Asparagus fell out of favor after 300 AD, reappearing in the 11th century in Germany's monastery gardens and prepared by monks for use as a herbal medicine.
It was not until the reign of Louis XIV the French Sun King, whose hot houses in the 17th century were filled with asparagus for his year round enjoyment, that asparagus regained popularity in Europe as a luxury vegetable reserved for the tables of nobles and the various royal courts.
By the 16th century Germany 'Spargel' began to be cultivated around Stuttgart, where it gained its nickname, 'The Royal Vegetable', because, as in France, it was only available to the nobility.
Germanyís love affair with asparagus had begun and by the middle of the 19th century was popular with all levels of society. Now 'Spargelzeit' is a huge event throughout the country and hard to escape.
Market vendors provide free access to 'Asparagus Shelling Machines' where customers buy their asparagus and then politely line up to await their turn. Saves a lot of time battling with the usual kitchen asparagus peeler which invariably has a mind of its own.
There are hundreds of different recipes, multiple White Asparagus Menu's in five star restaurants as well as bars, asparagus competitions with "Kings" and "Queens" judged and crowned by the size of the asparagus stalk they have either grown or bought. Asparagus peeling contests, asparagus seminars, cooking courses, festivals, tours, road side asparagus booths and of course a choice of 'Asparagus Routes'.
Even out of season the asparagus fields on the 85 mile Baden Asparagus Route, and the 466 mile long The Lower Saxony Asparagus Route, are easily identifiable until autumn with leafy green plants and bell shaped white flowers, followed by red berries. The routes don't only pass asparagus fields but also museums, a mass of cultural and historical sites, lakes, picturesque landscapes and, in season, restaurants offering all types of Spargel specialties and combinations.
Some of them more than a little bizarre. Asparagus ice cream?
Schwetzingen, the self proclaimed 'Asparagus Capital , is where 17th century Elector Palatine Karl Theodor started a trend of the world' among the 'Princedoms' by ordering asparagus to be grown in the grounds of his summer residence, green asparagus in those days. In May the castle grounds echo to the sounds of a Spargelzeit festival, and on the market place outside the castle's gates stands a bronze monument shaded by chestnut trees. It commemorates the 'Spargelfrauen'. Women who had to work from very early in the morning digging out asparagus, then stand and sell what they had harvested.
A 15th century tower in Schrobenhausen upper Bavaria houses the European Asparagus Museum, where, along with an iconic Andy Warhol painting of an asparagus, there are exhibits on everything from horticulture and history to recipes and medical science.
White and green asparagus are the same plant. The green variety grown in flat beds exposed to the sun has a long history, and is still the most popular worldwide, whereas Germany's favorite white asparagus is more tender and creamy with a sweeter taste.
In fact many trying it for the first time think it has no taste.
White asparagus spears need to be blanched, so as they grow earth is continually molded around them to ensure there is no contact with the sun to turn them green. A method first discovered by the Romans it was not followed in Germany until the mid 17th century, and then green Spargel fell out of fashion. Although seen more often in the last years it has never returned to its former popularity.
As it reaches for light the leaf buds of asparagus spears lengthen underground, and a tip exposed to the sun turns light purple so harvesting begins at dawn. Spears are harvested individually by hand as the mounds begin to crack but before the shoots break through the earth.
Harvesting asparagus involves digging down to cut the spear under the earth, and must be done by hand with a special knife as machines would break the stalks. These days it is mainly skilled migrant workers who cut out an average of 100 spears an hour, and as asparagus grows quickly they often work through the afternoon to bring in a second harvest.
Once it begins producing an asparagus field can last twenty years, but it takes two to three years for the first crops to appear on newly cultivated beds, which need constant care and then each stalk must be harvested individually.
Labor intensive, so asparagus begins the season by being very expensive and as the weeks pass, although the price drops, it never becomes inexpensive.
Nevertheless for Germanyís many asparagus lovers Spargelzeit is a high point of Spring. The highly anticipated and delicious seasonal delicacy which disappears as quickly as it arrives, both from the dish and the field.
Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce (www.altdeutsche.de) - Asparagus Monument in Schwetzingen by Xocolatl, courtesy de.Wikipedia - Digging up white asparagus at Hof Hawighorst in Lower Saxony, one of the areas with most asparagus growers.
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Stalking The Wild Asparagus is not about Germany's White Asparagus, but it does include the wild variety, and what a fun book it is. Euell Gibbons devoted part of his life to the adventure of "living off the land" in the USA. Seeking out wild plants, which he made into delicious dishes. Plants he gathered and prepared in this book are widely available everywhere in North America, and there are recipes for everything from vegetable and casserole dishes to pies, jellies and wines.
And of course you could always grow your own with "Mary Washington Asparagus Plants", just ridge soil around the crowns and you will have white asparagus in a year or two, which will keep producing for perhaps 20 years. Long enough to make all sorts of white asparagus recipes.