At this time of year, there’s a palpable sense of excitement in northwestern Europe. It all surrounds a vegetable dubbed “white gold,” “spears of spring air,” and “edible ivory”—white asparagus.
Called “spargel” in German (simply, asparagus), it’s not the green asparagus more common in North America.
“For me, asparagus was always white asparagus,” said chef Kurt Gutenbrunner of Wallsé in Manhattan’s West Village. He grew up in an Austrian village by the Danube river. “Outside of Vienna, you find these beautiful white asparagus fields it’s a little bit sandy there, and the climate is right.”
The asparagus is white because it grows while covered under a mound of soil. The harvest is still done by hand, by workers with a keen eye who scan the earth for the tiny telltale cracks as the asparagus spears push their way upward.
“You have to harvest early in the morning before the sun comes up,” Gutenbrunner said. If you ever see asparagus with purple tips, that because, he explained, the harvest was a little too late. From purple, and if left to grow under the sun, they’ll turn green.
The white asparagus season lasts from early April through late June—the perennial plants are then left to recover for the following year’s harvest after that. This year, the winter was colder than usual. For example, the restaurant Böser in Forst, which specializes in asparagus dishes, opened its doors on April 5.
The first asparagus elicits much enthusiasm—as much for its delicate, sweet flavor as for the certainty that spring has at last arrived. On Facebook you can be sure to find full-capped exultations like “ES IST #SPARGEL-ZEIT” (“It’s asparagus time”).
It’s probably been about three weeks since the first asparagus was dug out and you still find 92,028 people talking about #spargel.
White asparagus, called the “King of Vegetables” by some, has received some royal favor in history.
The French “Sun King,” Louis XIV, was said to relish white asparagus. Karl Theodor, the Elector Palatine, also became fond of it, and in 1650, ordered for it to be grown at his summer residence, Schwetzingen Palace. In the 18th century, it became popular in courtly cuisine; nobles would pick up the stalks with specialized silver finger pliers.
“The asparagus was cooked until very soft so that they could be sipped like oysters. They were—just like oysters—served as a delicacy,” said Margrit Csiky, head of city marketing in Bruchsal, Germany. “Each stalk was picked up with specially prepared asparagus tongs and slurped straight in one piece.”
Today, though, preferences run more toward al dente, and a fork and knife do just fine.
“I like it when asparagus has a bite,” Gutenbrunner said. He likes it with nothing more than some béarnaise or hollandaise sauce. “You just dip [the asparagus] with your fingers.” Traditional accompaniments might be young potatoes, a slice of ham, or smoked fish.
Being labor intensive, the royal vegetable does have a royal price too, especially early in the season. The best quality white asparagus sold at about 19.80 euros a pound ($22) earlier this month. According to Csiky, the price is expected to fall with good weather as the season progresses.
If you head to Germany, you can find seasonal pop-up restaurants that serve only white asparagus; asparagus festivals; crowned asparagus queens; asparagus runs; asparagus galas, such as the one held at the baroque Bruchsal Castle; and museums likes the European Asparagus Museum in Schrobenhausen.
In the Rhine Valley, which is home to the largest asparagus growing area in Europe, an asparagus bicycle tour along the Baden Asparagus Route takes riders along growing fields for 85 miles, punctuated by highlights along the way. The area is flat, making it popular for family trips.
Bruchsal, for example, is the site of a Baroque palace as well as the largest asparagus market in Europe; Karlsruhe and Schwetzingen are also homes to palaces. In Rastatt, visitors can try their hands at harvesting asparagus on select dates. It is recommended to time your visit to coincide with one of the folk festivals along the bike trail, in cities such as Bruchsal, Schwetzingen, or Walldorf.
Restaurant experiences range from the rustic to the refined, from Michelin-starred restaurants to pop-up restaurants by the side of the road, adjoining farms.
For the latter, try Spargelhof Böser in Forst, Spargelhof Simianer in Hambrücken, Spargelhof Mösch with Courtyard Café in Graben-Neudorf, or Spargelhof Krüger with an asparagus tent in Walldorf.
Drinking to Asparagus
While you’re eating asparagus along the Baden route, remember the old adage, “What grows together goes together.” Local Baden wines come highly recommended.
Csiky recommended white wines with moderate acidity such as Rivaner, riesling, and pinot blanc, but especially recommends trying the Auxerrois, a specialty of the Kraichgau (known in France as Pinot Auxerrois).
“This wine is characterized by a very pleasant, mild acidity. In the fragrance one can identify exotic fruits such as mango, passion fruit, papaya, and mirabelle [plum]. The pleasant acidity, along with the exotic bouquet, make it the ideal companion of asparagus,” she said.
In addition to the Baden Asparagus route, Germany also has an asparagus trail in Lower Saxony.
For more information, see germany.travel/en