The German cuisine may be best known for its pork knuckles and fermented cabbage, but the ingredient the Germans get most excited about each year? Long, thick spears of white asparagus grown under mounds of earth and served up with butter and ham.
You can usually spot the first bundles white asparagus (Spargel) at German farmers’ markets in the middle of March, but at staggeringly high prices, since the season is yet to officially begin. The annual harvesting of Germany’s “king of vegetables” begins in April and finishes on the 24 June, the day of the Christian celebration of the nativity of John the Baptist. Prices plummet when the season starts properly, but you shouldn’t head for the cheapest spears: since white asparagus is graded, the best of it remains the most expensive, and it’s definitely worth paying more for the finest of what the Germans call “white gold”.
If you’re trying white asparagus for the first time, don’t expect it to taste anything like its green relation. White asparagus is much softer in texture and a bit stringier than green asparagus, and it has a much more subtle, delicate flavour. A whole lot of love goes into growing, harvesting and preparing white asparagus, so if you’re in Germany during Spargelzeit (white asparagus season), I wholly recommend embracing the madness and eating as much of it as you can.
Going wild for the white stuff
Throughout Spargel season, you’ll see mountains of spears piled high not only at farmers markets and supermarkets but also at the roadside stands and pop-up stalls that appear all over towns and villages up and down the country. There are white asparagus festivals to attend, white asparagus queens to be crowned, asparagus peeling contests to take part in, and some folk even mash the treasured spears, distill the resulting liquid and turn it into Schnapps.
From April to June, you can join in celebrations all over Germany, but the prime asparagus-growing regions also have gourmet routes to visit, along which you can drop into farms and restaurants and sample all manner of white asparagus delights. For the ultimate seasonal experience, head to the white asparagus routes in Baden (the Badische Spargelstraße) or Lower Saxony (the Niedersächsische Spargelstraße).
Is white the same as green?
Technically, yes, but though the plants come from the same seeds, they’re treated in such different ways as they’re grown and harvested that the resulting spears are very little like each other, both in terms of look and taste. When it comes to putting green and white asparagus on the table, you might as well consider them to be completely different vegetables.
If you’re after green asparagus, ask for grüner Spargel. It’s become much more widely available in the years I’ve lived here, but though it’s delicious, the green German spears tend to be much fatter and paler than the British ones. When buying green asparagus in a German supermarket, just keep an eye on the label: if you buy a bunch that’s been harvested prematurely and flown over from Peru, it’s not going to taste half as good as the locally-sourced stuff.
How is white asparagus grown?
White asparagus has such a pale, almost luminous colour because every effort is made to keep it covered up as it grows. If it’s exposed to sunlight, it quickly discolours, so earth is moulded around the spears as they grow (which they do mindbogglingly quickly – up to several inches a day) and they’re covered in plastic sheeting and/or tarpaulins to keep light out and heat in. Rogue spears that poke through the earth, catch the sun and start to turn violet are deemed inferior, along with any wonky spears, and considered to be second class.
Harvesting white asparagus is intensive, backbreaking work: each individual spear has to be carefully extracted from the soil by hand, using a special knife in order that it isn’t broken or damaged.
How to buy white asparagus
The best way to ensure you’re getting good white asparagus is to buy it fresh, locally, and pick the best quality spears you can afford. The spears are divided broadly into three categories (though at farm shops and market stalls they may fall into more) and clearly labelled, but whichever class you choose, have a quick look to check that the cut ends aren’t dried out – if you squeeze them, tiny drops of water should appear.
Extra Spargel is the most expensive white asparagus, worth splashing out on if you’re cooking something special. These spears are the whitest, straightest, thickest and plumpest (at least 1.2cm in diameter), with tight flower heads and a beautiful velvety sheen.
Handelsklasse I (HK I) spears are medium-sized (a minimum diameter of 1cm) and may be slightly bent and/or lightly violet-coloured. They represent good value for a midweek supper.
Handelsklasse II (HK II) are at the bottom of the white asparagus heap. Spears may be curvy, the flower heads starting to open and more darkly coloured than those in HK I, and they’re usually woodier than the more expensive stuff. These spears are also often the damaged or broken spears from heavy-handed harvesting, and are generally used for making soup stock.
When buying white asparagus, the average serving size per person is considered to be 500g.
How to prepare and cook white asparagus
When you get your white gold home, wrap it loosely in a damp cloth, keep it in the fridge and eat it within a couple of days.
To prepare it for cooking, unlike green asparagus, the white stuff is going to need peeling. Removing the fibrous skin from just below the flower heads with a vegetable peeler, ensuring you strip every last scrap of it away: the skin can taste very bitter and leaving it on may render it inedible. If you’ve bought rather a lot of white asparagus and can’t face peeling it all yourself, you can often find folk with machines at the market who’ll do it for a small fee.
If you’ve bought fresh white spears, they shouldn’t need peeling: gently squeeze their cut ends and if droplets appear, you can leave them be. If, however, your white asparagus is old and the end is woody, try slicing a small amount off at a time until the end is wet.
To cook white asparagus, I like to make a stock with water and its peelings, then add the spears, a knob of butter, a sprinkling of white sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice and simmer gently, covered, for 12-15 minutes or until a sharp knife slides easily through the thick end of the spears. If you’re really serious about your asparagus you can invest in a tall, narrow asparagus pot (a Spargeltopf), which allows you to stand the spears up so that you can steam them gently in water.
Traditional German white asparagus dishes
At this time of year, most traditional German inns and restaurants in asparagus-growing regions offer a special menu dedicated to their favourite seasonal offering (known as a Spargelkarte). As well as delicately flavoured cream soups and various salads, white asparagus is often served with pancakes – shredded or whole – or boiled potatoes, cooked or cured ham and butter or Hollandaise sauce. But in addition to the specialty dishes, the Germans often just pop a bundle of helping of white asparagus on top of other other traditional plates of food: you’ll come across white asparagus on Schnitzel, steak, Saumagen or just about anything else you can think of. When it comes to serving white asparagus in Germany, more is very definitely more.
If you’d like to read more about the German love of white gold, I’ve written about it for The Guardian as well as National Geographic Traveller Food UK (an edited version of which article can also be found in the US and Indian magazines). I’ve also been interviewed in the German press, most recently for Wiesbaden’s Merkurist.
Are you a fan of white asparagus? How do you like yours? And what do you like to drink with it?