Spargelzeit – Why do Germans love white asparagus?

I just don’t get the obsession in Germany with white asparagus. Restaurants are dominated with ‘Spargel’ specials and temporary kiosks are popping up all over Germany as farmers sell the latest crop of this unique German delicacy. Oddly (or fortunately) this German speciality is not nearly as well-known as other famous German exports like beer, schnitzel and sausages.

I don’t have anything against asparagus in general. I actually really like the first tender green asparagus of the season boiled and buttered. But the idea that white asparagus are an improvement is strange. Contrary to many people’s belief, white asparagus are not a different species of plant. It is simply a normal asparagus plant that has been starved of sunlight and therefore unable to create the green colour (and associated nutrients) through photosynthesis. In addition to this, the asparagus needs to be peeled before cooking due to the production process which sees it spend 3 years buried under a pile of soil.

That’s right, to produce white asparagus, the plant is essentially buried for three years, then harvested by hand, peeled by specialist (German-made of course) machinery, before being served in a sea of Hollandaise sauce. The last bit seems odd as well. Apparently, according to Spargel aficionados, white asparagus has a gentler, sweeter and more subtle flavour that the regular green version. So why on earth do they need to cover it in so much Hollandaise sauce?

Asparagus were introduced to Germany by the Romans but only really took root 🙂 about 250 years ago in when it began to be mass-cultivated. There are various myths about how they discovered white asparagus as being softer and sweeter, particularly a story about a crop being destroyed by hailstone so the locals had to make do with just eating the white base of the stem that was protected under the soil.

Now there is a whole cultural side to asparagus with a ‘Spargel Routes’ in various places and many Spargel Festivals. Particularly well known are the events in Nienburg where they host a large festival as self-declared home of the Spargel and even elect a Spargel Queen for the day!

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