I have a confession to make: the first time I tried white asparagus (Spargel), I thought tasted horrible. Not because it was undercooked or overcooked or because I’d had the misfortune to bite off a bitter bit, but simply because I was expecting it to taste like green asparagus. Well, white asparagus doesn’t taste like green asparagus, not at all – it’s softer, with a much subtler flavour – and if you also expect it to taste like the green stuff when you try it for the first time, you probably won’t like it either. So, now as a seasoned Spargel eater (and unashamed Spargel lover), my first tip for enjoying Germany’s king of vegetables is to consider it as a different vegetable altogether. My second tip? Drench it in melted butter.
My husband recently suggested that the reason seasoned green asparagus eaters remain unconvinced by white asparagus is as follows: green asparagus is, broadly speaking and unless you’ve boiled it to the point of disintegration, very, very good. White asparagus, however, can go either way: it can be the softest, tastiest, most delicate Spring delight, or you can have a mouthful of bitter woodiness that’ll make you screw your face up, and then you’ll be off it for weeks.
Happily, there are precautions you can take to prevent this. German white asparagus is graded, so if you buy the fatter, straighter, pricier spears, you’re increasing your chances of not ending up looking like a bulldog chewing a wasp whilst you eat it; and if you peel them carefully and snap the woody ends off where they naturally break when you bend them, you should avoid eating anything bitter altogether. I find the peeling process rather therapeutic myself, but I understand most people find it incredibly dull. If you can’t face such a monotonous task yourself, you can often find someone with a great big peeling machine to do it for you. There’s a chap at the Wiesbaden farmers’ market who’ll do the job for 1€ a kilo.
Though white asparagus is mostly served very simply, just with boiled potatoes or pancakes and a generous helping of melted butter, my favourite Spargel dish involves a slathering of Hollandaise and some slices of cooked ham. Hollandaise sauce has a reputation for being tricky to make but you shouldn’t be nervous about giving it a go: as long as you keep the heat low, stir it very, very slowly and don’t take your eye off it for a second (no pressure) you should end up with a lusciously smooth, rich and creamy sauce. If it splits, stir in a bit more egg yolk and it should come back together without any trouble. On which note, when separating the eggs, don’t waste the whites! Put them in the fridge or freeze them and then make yourself a treat. Meringues, macarons, chocolate mousse; there are all sorts of delicious ways you can use them up.
Lastly, if you’re wondering what to drink with your white gold, the trusty Wine Rambler provides some recommendations below. But first, on with the food…
White asparagus with Hollandaise sauce
For the asparagus (serves 4)
2kg white asparagus
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
For the Hollandaise
4 medium-sized egg yolks
1 tbsp freshly-squeezed lemon juice
a pinch of salt
a pinch of cayenne pepper
225g (8oz) butter
2 tbsp cold water
700g new potatoes (Annabelle or Gala)
8-12 slices of good quality cooked ham (optional)
Fresh parsley (to garnish)
First prepare your asparagus. Peel the spears from below the head all the way to the base. (You shouldn’t need to snap the ends off, but it’s advisable if they’re no longer so fresh that they’re wet.) Put the ends and peelings into a wide, shallow pan and cover with water, bring to the boil and leave to simmer for 15 minutes to create a light stock. Remove all the bits and discard them before adding the butter, salt and sugar and carefully placing the asparagus into the liquid. Cook gently for 10-15 minutes, until you can slide a knife easily through the thick end of the spears. Leave the spears in a sieve for a couple of minutes to let the water drain off them before plating up.
Whilst you’re making your asparagus stock, prepare your potatoes. Scrub or peel them, put them in a pan, cover them with cold water, bring to the boil, add a little salt and leave them to simmer for 15 minutes or until they slide off a sharp knife when you prod them.
On to the Hollandaise: whisk the egg yolks in a medium-sized bowl with the lemon juice, salt and cayenne pepper. Heat the butter in a non-stick pan until it has just melted – you don’t want to let it get too hot; add the water and then drizzle the mixture very, very slowly into the egg, whisking constantly. Now pour it all back into the pan, place on a very low heat and keep stirring (or whisking, if you spot any lumps) until the sauce is nice and thick.
Spoon the Hollandaise over the asparagus and serve with the potatoes and slices of ham, if you wish, and garnished with the parsley.
What to drink with white asparagus
The Wine Rambler says, “Asparagus is said to be difficult to match with wine as it can make them metallic or bitter. However, a fresh, citrussy white should do fine. My standard recommendation for asparagus would be Silvaner, a very food-friendly white wine, or a dry Riesling. Sauvignon Blanc would also work, though it’s harder to find a local one as it is not common in Germany (Mosbacher in the Pfalz make a lovely one). For asparagus with hollandaise, a lightly oaked Chardonnay would be a good choice as it matches the sauce better, or perhaps a good Pinot Blanc – Germany does lovely Weissburgunder, for instance from Baden“.