Germany’s white asparagus enjoys cult-like following
Correction: This story has been updated to say that the 2019 Spargel Festival event is May 4 and activities start April 27.
Schwetzingen, Germany — Nearly 50 years after moving to Michigan from Germany, Marianne May still can’t quite fathom Americans’ fondness for green asparagus.
“When I saw green asparagus I said, ‘You people in America are crazy,’” recalls the Clarkston resident. “Green is what we feed to the cows and pigs. We never ate it!”
Much better, she believes, is the fresh white asparagus that’s considered a delicacy – and enjoys almost cult status --- in Germany. Though the stalks typically are bigger than green asparagus, they’re milder and sweeter than what we’re accustomed to eating in the United States.
“You peel them so they’re tender and very delicate -- they just melt in your mouth,” May says of the thick white stalks she helped clean and deliver to the local co-op from her family’s plot in Philippsburg, near Heidelberg, in Baden-Wurtemmberg, Germany.
To achieve its color (or lack thereof), white asparagus is grown underground, inside mounds of sandy soil that shield it from sunlight and chlorophyll production. That growing method has prompted wags to dub it “the vampire of the vegetable world.”
Called spargel in German, white asparagus was cultivated and laboriously hand-harvested on some 1,800 German farms last year, mostly by temporary workers from Eastern Europe. It’s available throughout Germany at farm stands, markets and restaurants, ranging from rustic to gourmet, during its short, two-month growing season, late April through June 24. Price for the top grade this season is about $5 per pound.
In the Detroit area, white asparagus can be found seasonally at gourmet groceries including Whole Foods, Papa Joe’s, Plum Market, and Vince & Joe’s, according to the stores’ produce clerks. Most comes from Peru or Mexico, though some is grown in California.
In Germany, spring’s eagerly anticipated Spargelzeit – literally “Asparagus time” --- is celebrated with festivals, asparagus queens, relay races, art exhibits and contests, special menus, galas and dinner parties starring the prized white spears sometimes called “edible ivory,” “white gold” or the “king of vegetables.” From ice cream to schnapps, white asparagus shows up in everything. Faux asparagus tips made from white chocolate are popular souvenirs.
For Marianne May, meals don’t get much better than her late mother’s traditional German pancakes served with fresh, steamed white asparagus in a nutmeg-dusted cream sauce topped with thin Black Forest ham. “It’s the best!” she declares, and adds: “It’s just a whole different taste than green asparagus.”
Other typical white asparagus accompaniments include Hollandaise sauce, drawn butter, parsley-dotted new potatoes, Schnitzel (breaded veal or pork cutlets), or smoked salmon, all served with crisp, dry German white wine.
May shares her late father’s fondness for another simple dish: a salad of fresh white asparagus and hard-boiled eggs seasoned with salt, pepper and a tasty vinaigrette.
She savors her culinary favorites whenever she returns to her hometown near Schwetzingen, southwest Germany’s sandy-soiled “asparagus capital” that’s celebrating the 350th anniversary of white asparagus this year.
Cultivated in the famous royal gardens of Schwetzingen Palace as far back as 1668, the delicate white spears were served exclusively at court banquets, prompting spargel’s reputation as the “royal vegetable.”
Beyond that, harvest workers must “bow down” before each shoot in order to cut it out of the ground, points out Ilse Fackel-Kretz, who helps run Frischer Spargel, her family’s fifth-generation backyard produce stand in Schwetzingen. It’s one of a designated handful in the region that cultivates white asparagus from the castle’s venerable “royal roots.”
On a visit last month, I met the 86-year-old asparagus matriarch and observed the back-breaking effort required to grow, hand-harvest, clean, sort, peel and market white asparagus. I also saw the joy it brings to its legion of fans – practically every German I met!
During the busy spring season, Fackel-Kretz still goes to the family field twice each day, at 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., to dig into the dirt mounds and hand-cut the white asparagus stalks. She joins her daughter, Elfriede Fackel-Kretz-Keller, other family members and three Polish workers who have worked the harvest for 20 years. And she notes with pride that her granddaughter, Katharina Becker, was Schwetzingen’s Asparagus Queen for eight years.
White asparagus grows fast – nearly 4 inches on some days, according to Fackel-Kretz, who exclaims: “You can watch it grow!” On one especially productive day, her crew harvested 300 kilograms – 660 pounds – of white asparagus and hand-peeled about 6,000 stalks.
You can tell it’s fresh when you rub two stalks together and hear them squeak, says Fackel-Kretz-Keller, who notes that wrapping white asparagus in a wet towel will maintain freshness for up to three days. “When the end is dry it’s very old,” she says. “But if you see water come out, it’s very fresh.”
And that’s the perfect time to enjoy a special delicacy that has excited German tastebuds for centuries.
Susan Pollack is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.
If you go
Schwetzingen is a key stop on the Baden Asparagus Route, an 85-mile journey by car or bicycle through the southwest Germany countryside. The town boasts a 124-year-old asparagus market on the Schlossplatz, outside the baroque castle, complete with a highly-photographed “asparagus woman” bronze sculpture. Outdoor art projects, historic photos and even a giant asparagus sand sculpture are all part of this year’s 350th anniversary celebration of white asparagus. Next year’s Spargel Festival is May 4; activities start April 27 when local dignitaries gather for the official annual “asparagus cutting.” Check germany.travel/en/leisure-and-recreation/scenic-routes/baden-asparagus-route.html or tourism-bw.com.
Asparagus with Bacon and Hard-Boiled Eggs
From Bon Appetit
Fat spears of white asparagus take a little longer to cook, so boil them separately.
4 oz. bacon (about 4 slices)
2 bunches green and/or white asparagus (about 2 lb.), trimmed, ends peeled if thick
1/2 small shallot, finely chopped
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Freshly ground black pepper
4 hard-boiled large eggs, whites and yolks separated, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tender herbs (such as chives and/or tarragon)
Cook bacon in a large skillet over medium heat, turning once, until browned and crisp, 5–8 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain; let cool, then crumble.
Meanwhile, cook asparagus in a large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, 3–5 minutes, depending on thickness. (If using green and white asparagus, cook white asparagus first to keep them from turning green.) Drain and transfer to a large bowl of ice water to cool. Drain and pat dry.
Whisk shallot, vinegar, maple syrup, and mustard in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil until emulsified, then whisk in vegetable oil; season with salt and pepper.
Serve asparagus drizzled with vinaigrette and topped with eggs, herbs, and bacon. Servies 8.
DO AHEAD: Vinaigrette can be made 2 days ahead; cover and chill. Asparagus can be cooked 1 day ahead; cover and chill.
White Asparagus with Black Forest Ham
A side dish or salad of blanched white asparagus and German Black Forest ham, with avocado, tomato, basil and chives and an oil and vinegar dressing. From GermanFoods.org.
1 lb fresh white asparagus
1 large ripe avocado
1/2 cup Oil and Vinegar Dressing
4 ripe round or plum tomatoes skinned
4 large fresh basil leaves, shredded
8 slices wafer-thin German Black Forest ham
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Oil and Vinegar Dressing
4 ounces rapeseed (canola) or vegetable oil
4 ounces olive oil
4 ounces German white wine or German apple vinegar or half of each
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon German mustard
1 teaspoon German honey, optional
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Trim the bottoms of the asparagus stalks and peel with a vegetable peeler. Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil and drop in the asparagus. Simmer for 3 minutes and have a large bowl of ice water ready.
Using a large slotted spoon, lift out the asparagus spears carefully. Place immediately into the ice water and leave for 5 minutes, then carefully drain.
Slice the avocado and mix gently with a third of the dressing. Season well. Slice the tomatoes thinly and season. Allow to stand for 10 minutes then drizzle with another third of the dressing and mix in the basil.
Arrange 2 slices of ham on each of four large plates. Divide the asparagus, tomato and avocado among the plates. Drizzle the last of the dressing over the asparagus and sprinkle over the chives. Season with coarsely ground pepper and serve.
For dressing: This dressing is a good all-purpose recipe for green leaf, potato, pasta and mixed vegetable salads. Makes 1 1/4 cups.
Whisk together all ingredients. Store refrigerated in sealed jar. Whisk again just before serving. Makes 4 servings.
Asparagus Salad With Salmon
White asparagus with a raspberry vinegar dressing is topped with salmon and garnished with dill in this celebration of spring flavors.
2 lbs. white asparagus
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
4 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
Salt, pepper, sugar
6 tablespoons rapeseed oil (canola oil)
1 teaspoon mustard
1 small onion
10 oz salmon chunks smoked or canned
Salt, pepper, sugar
Wash and peel the asparagus, cut off the ends. Cut the spears into 1 - 1 1/2 inch chunks. Boil water, adding the salt and sugar, then add the asparagus and cook for 10-12 minutes. Remove the spears from the water, drain well and let cool.
Combine vinegar with salt, pepper and sugar, then whisk in oil and mustard. Peel, finely chop and add the onion. Divide the salmon into bite-size pieces and combine with the asparagus pieces. Carefully fold under the marinade, cover and chill the salad for about 30 minutes. Arrange the salad on lettuce leaves and garnish with fresh dill. Makes 4 servings.
Asparagus-Ham Cream with Ribbon Noodles
A main dish of noodles with green asparagus and German ham with a creamy gouda sauce.
8 ounces thin ribbon noodles
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 pounds white asparagus
1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper
1 medium onion
8 ounces cooked ham
3 tablespoons canola oil
3/4 cup cream
2 egg yolks
2 ounces grated Gouda (German if available)
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons chopped basil
Cook the noodles according to instructions until al dente and drain.
Wash the asparagus, peel and chop off the woody ends. Cut the stems into 1 inch pieces and cook in boiling water, seasoned with salt and sugar for about 6-8 minutes. Drain and save the cooking water.
Peel and chop the onion. Chop the ham and lightly fry both the onion and ham in the canola oil. Add the asparagus.
Mix together the cream with the egg yolk, cheese and salt and pepper. Pour into the pan and mix together with the asparagus, onion and ham. Allow to heat without boiling.
Carefully fold the pasta into the mixture and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.