There’s a heartfelt German saying that roughly translates: “Spargel in the morning, Spargel at noon, Spargel in the evening and Spargel ’neath the moon.”
Springtime in Germany unleashes the Teutonic version of “silly season” known and worshipped around the country as Spargelzeit (asparagus time).
Spargel (pronounced “Shpargel” and spelt with a capital as are all German nouns) is usually the first fresh vegetable available after the long winter stodge of cabbage, potato and kohl rabi, so Germans embrace the stuff with astonishing enthusiasm for a brief but frenetic season that lasts from now to late June.
This isn’t the skinny, puny green stuff that causes such a national fuss, these are big thick white yummy spears kept covered while growing and picked before turning green. Some 70,000 tonnes costing $20-$35 a kilo are downed every season.
No surprise then that Spargelzeit is big business. With the spontaneity of a coral spawn, Spargelmania consumes the nation as menus in every home and restaurant fill with the “royal vegetable” used in everything from Spargel appetisers, Spargel snacks and Spargel soups to Spargel pasta, Spargel casseroles and Spargel sausages and, if you get particularly lucky, Spargel ice cream.
From Bamberg to Freiburg, from Bayreuth to Leipzig, placards appear outside every Brauhaus, Weinstube, cafe and Michelin-starred restaurant announcing the first of the new season Spargel and cutthroat competition flares between chefs to create the best and most imaginative new dishes.
In grocery shops, market stalls and supermarkets, Spargel suddenly occupies about half the fresh produce space and bookshops shove all their dusty Spargel cookbooks to the fore. Pick an intersection, any intersection, and odds are there will be a wooden hut flogging nothing but virginal white Spargel.
Germans travel long distances on the annual pilgrimage (Pilgerfahrt) to buy Spargel directly from their preferred farm (Spargelhof).
Spargel devotees arrive from across Europe and around the world to tour Spargel fields, attend cooking classes, guzzle succulent Spargel spears and drive or cycle around signposted Spargelstrassen (asparagus routes).
Spargel grows right across Germany but the consensus is that the finest gourmet Spargel is grown in the Spargeldreieck (Asparagus Triangle) just south of Frankfurt International Airport in Baden-Wuerttemberg, at last count, the state with Germany’s highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants.
The Baden Spargelstrasse begins near Heidelberg at Schwetzingen, “the Spargel capital of the world”, and winds 136km through the towns of Reilingen, Bruchsal, Karlsruhe and Rastatt down to Scherzheim.
Even if you can’t stomach asparagus, while you indulge your Spargel-crazed partner there’s plenty to keep you occupied as the road skirts the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) past pretty, flower-filled meadows, castles, museums and beautifully laid-out parks and gardens.
You can sample wildly diverse Spargel dishes at every turn, watch harvesters at work in the fields and even join in to help. Almost every Spargelstrasse town holds a Spargelfest featuring highly contested Spargel peeling competitions.
Since 1992, the world record Spargel peeler has been Helmut Zipner from Kiel (pictured above) who fired up the Fatherland when he skinned 1,000kg of Spargel in just 11.24 hours at a Spargelfest in Berlin earning himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records, a master-chef slot on German television and the prize nickname Spargel-Tarzan.
It’s now Spargelzeit 2014 and in the Spargel capital of the world Spargel sellers have piled their freshly cut spears anywhere they’ll fit in Schwetzingen’s market square, by the gates of the gorgeous 18th century pink baroque castle and near a bronze statue of the Spargelfrau, a tribute to the town’s Spargel vendors.
Schwetzingen’s Spargelfest includes an outdoor Spargel banquet, concerts in the castle’s magnificent rococo-style theatre where Mozart once performed and a Spargel king and queen who are each awarded a crown of Spargel spears.
Bruchsal boasts Europe’s largest Spargelfest and another beautiful baroque palace begun in 1722 with an impressive double staircase designed by 18th century architecture whiz, Balthasar Neumann, described by some as the finest staircase in the world.
There’s another resplendent palace just down the road at Karlsruhe built in 1715 as the official residence of Baden’s rulers which is now the Baden State Museum.
Rastatt lies where the Murg River flows out of the Black Forest into the Rhine. Allow time to tour the sumptuous interior of the red sandstone Rastatt Palace built in 1707. Just south is the Rebland, one of the most important wine growing districts in the Baden area peppered with sunny vineyards and quaint little wine-taverns.
There’s nothing much at Scherzheim so detour east into the beautiful Schwarzwald (Black Forest), home of coronary cakes and cuckoo clocks and bliss out in the famous spa town of Baden Baden until your Spargel-crazed partner reaches tipping point.
So head back to Schwetzingen and drop by the pretty yellow Hotel Adler Post on Schlossstrasse, now run by the seventh generation of the Hoefer family, for a special Spargel fix. During Spargelzeit, Adler Post has one of the country’s most elaborate Spargel menus.
There’s Spargel with breast of quail with spinach and hollandaise sauce, salmon in Spargel stock with fresh morels and the brilliant sugar-crusted creme brulee of Spargel or, if you’re just a traditional Spargel purist, Spargel drenched in hollandaise sauce with Black Forest ham.
In the event you’re honoured with an invitation to a private Spargelessen (Spargel dinner), here are some tips on Spargel etiquette from Spargelmeister Zipner.
Always eat Spargel from the stalk end to the tip. Spargel is expensive so don’t even think about leaving any Spargel on your plate and never ask for more; always wait until it is offered. And remember that disparaging the “royal vegetable” in any way is tantamount to a national insult.
Story and Asparagus Images ©Copyright David May 2014 (Copyright Agency Limited)