In the months April to June Germany offers a tasty surprise for the gourmets under us.
Asparagus is known as the “royal vegetable” in Germany, a nickname gained because (as in France) it was only available to the nobility. It was during the reign of Louis XIV the French Sun King, who grew asparagus in green houses so he could enjoy it all year, that asparagus regained popularity in Europe as a luxury vegetable reserved for the tables of nobles and the various royal courts, and in 16th century Germany ‘Spargel’ began to be cultivated around Stuttgart.
A ‘Catalogue of Herbs and Trees’ from the time, covering the ‘Pleasure Garden’ of a German Duke from the area, described asparagus as ‘delightful fare for lovers of food’.
Nevertheless Germany’s love affair with asparagus had begun, by the middle of the 19th century it was popular with all levels of society and ‘Spargelzeit’ is now a huge event throughout Germany.
Traditionally, it is grown in covered cloches so that when the spears protrude above ground, they will not start to photosynthesize in the sunlight. The spears are green to gold in color, and sometimes streaked with purple. The straighter and whiter the spear, the higher price it will fetch. Unlike green asparagus, which usually tastes best when the spears are thin, large spears of white asparagus can be quite flavorful, especially if the woody outer later is peeled away.
April to June is spargel season in Germany, and it’s hard to avoid this vegetable during these months. Roadside stands, farmers’ markets, and grocery stores all carry ample supplies of the “royal vegetable,” and many restaurants have special spargel menus which feature asparagus as the star ingredient. People who want to enjoy asparagus year round may opt to pickle white asparagus while it is in season, assuming that they can keep other members of their households away from the kitchen long enough to secure the asparagus in pickling jars.
In Schwetzingen, sometimes known as the asparagus capital, people can attend the annual Spargelfest, a festival dedicated specifically to celebrating asparagus, at which a Spargel Queen is crowned. White asparagus is worked into a variety of creative dishes during this annual festival, such as appetizers made by wrapping asparagus in cured meats, another specialty of German cuisine. Spargel can also be worked into quiches, salads, and a variety of other dishes.
Germany has divided asparagus into strict quality classes, comparable to USDA Grade A, Choice, etc. The classes of “Spargel” are:
Extra – Minimum diameter of 12 mm (15/32 inch), no hollow cores, perfectly straight and all white. Most expensive.
Handelsklasse I (HK I) – Minimum diameter of 10 mm (3/8 inch), light bending, light coloration (violet). Good value.
Handelsklasse II (HK II) – Minimum diameter of 8 mm (5/16 inch), curved stalks allowed, slightly opened flower heads, more color than HK I and sometimes woody. Good for soup stock and students.
No matter which quality you choose, the asparagus should be fresh, fresh asparagus has moist cut surfaces, can be dented with a fingernail and smells sweet, not sour. Do not touch the asparagus at the German market, unless you want to be yelled at by the seller.