Autumn in Germany is Apple and Grape harvests; Spring first Barlauch, wild garlic, then it is the eagerly anticipated "Spargelzeit". The two month white asparagus season that, depending on the weather, begins some time in April and lasts until just after Summer Solstice, on St. John the Baptist’s feast day June 24. For those weeks it is a country gripped by "Asparagus Fever".
On average every man, woman and child eats four pounds of asparagus during that time but, as there must be those who don’t like the "Royal Vegetable", "Das königliche Gemüse", this must also mean there will be some who are eating very little else.
Originally from Asia Minor, green asparagus spread to countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea around two thousand years ago; becoming a delicacy. At the time "asparagus" was used by the Greeks to describe most stalk type vegetables, but eventually just this one, and the Romans transported it together with many other plant species when crossing the Alps to conquer northern Europe’s "uncivilized" tribes.
Asparagus fell out of favor after 300 AD, re-appearing in the 11th century in Germany's monastery gardens and prepared by monks for use as herbal medicines.
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. A luxury vegetable reserved for the tables of nobles and the various royal courts.
In 16th century Germany Spargel cultivation began around Stuttgart, where it gained its nickname, "The Royal Vegetable", because, as in France, it was only available to the nobility.
The country's love affair with asparagus had begun and by the middle of the 19th century was popular with all levels of society. "Spargelzeit" is now a huge event throughout the country, and hard to escape.
Market vendors provide free access to "Asparagus Shelling Machines" where customers first buy their asparagus, then politely line up to await their turn. Saves battling with the usual kitchen asparagus peeler that invariably has a mind of its own.
There are hundreds of different recipes, and multiple "White Asparagus Menus" offered everywhere from five star restaurants to bars.
Asparagus festivals appear featuring "Kings" and "Queens" judged and crowned by the size of the asparagus stalk they have grown or bought and asparagus peeling contests. Asparagus seminars and cooking courses, tours and roadside asparagus booths last as long as the season, while the "Asparagus Routes" are popular year round.
Even out of season asparagus fields on the 85 mile "Baden Asparagus Route", and the 466 mile long "Lower Saxony Asparagus Route", are easily identifiable; leafy green plants and bell shaped white flowers until Autumn, followed by red berries.
The routes don't only pass asparagus fields but museums, a mass of cultural and historical sites, lakes, picturesque landscapes, and in season restaurants offering every possible combination of Spargel specialties.
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 among "Princedoms" etc. 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 its Spargelzeit festival, and on the market place outside the castle's gates stands a bronze monument shaded by chestnut trees. This commemorates "Spargelfrauen" the women who had to work from very early in the morning, first digging out asparagus then standing and selling their harvest.
A 15th century tower in Schrobenhausen Upper Bavaria houses the European Asparagus Museum, where, along with an iconic Andy Warhol painting of an asparagus, everything from horticulture and history to recipes and medical science is on exhibit.
White and green asparagus are the same plant.
The green variety grown in flat beds exposed to the sun has a long history, and 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, ensuring 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, then green Spargel fell out of fashion and, although seen more often in the last years, it has never returned to its former popularity.
As it reaches for light asparagus spear leaf buds lengthen underground, and as a tip exposed to the sun turns light purple harvesting begins at dawn. Spears are harvested by hand as the mounds begin to crack but before its 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 usually skilled migrant workers who cut out the average of 100 spears an hour, and as asparagus grows quickly they often work through the afternoon to bring in a second harvest.
An asparagus field can last twenty years after it begins to produce, but it will take two to three years before those first crops to appear on newly cultivated beds, and they need constant care. Then each stalk has to be harvested individually.
So it is labor intensive. Asparagus begins the season by being very expensive and as the weeks pass, although the price does drop, it never becomes "inexpensive".
Nevertheless for Germany’s many asparagus lovers "Spargelzeit" is the high point of Spring, perhaps even the culinary year. A highly anticipated and delicious seasonal delicacy that 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.