Most places in the world have four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Others have Dry Season and Wet season. In Hamburg, we have a rainy season which lasts for 11.5 months, and we have Asparagus Season.
Spargelzeit, as our cousins affectionately call this time of year (Spargel is German for asparagus), is a fundamentally German phenomenon. While I’m accustomed to gleefully welcoming the warmer months with the consumption of Pimms and ice cream, here in Germany it is this odd white vegetable which gets everyone in the mood for Spring. Yes, I said white. Other countries of the world – namely every country that isn’t Germany – prefer the green variety, because everyone knows that adding colour to your plate makes a dish more appealing. Everyone, that is, except the Germans. It’s not that I don’t enjoy German cuisine, but did nobody ever tell them that not all food is white, brown or something in between? They prefer their asparagus to be void of colour, cultivated underneath piles of delicious dirt and lovingly plucked out of the ground by the coarse hands of 2,200 specialist farmers who spend the rest of the year suffering back pain. How very organic. Here are some asparagus-themed fun facts to give you a flavour of how much the stuff is coveted here :
- Germany is one of the four biggest producers of asparagus in the world – and they don’t export a single spear of the white stuff, because they eat the lot. In fact, the demand is so high they even have to import some.
- There are 53,000 precious acres of land dedicated to growing the nation’s favourite vegetable. Meanwhile, refugees are being housed in former concentration camps.
- Thousands of temporary workers have to come to Germany every year to help dig it all up.
- Even the German tourist board is jumping on the bandwagon. There are four scenic ‘Spargelstraße’ routes in Germany where you can tour the local asparagus regions, and in the Baden-Württemberg town of Schwetzingen – reportedly the world’s Asparagus Capital – there’s even an annual Asparagus Festival. Who’s in?
Such is this strange national obsession, there is an entire micro-economy revolving around a vegetable that is only on sale for eight weeks of the year (very specifically, in true German fashion, from mid April until June 24th). Asparagus pop-ups start to appear in unlikely places, such as U-Bahn stations. Nothing makes a springtime commute more complete than arriving at the office with a bunch of fresh white spears in your hand. At the weekend, I popped into REWE, which is the crème de la crème of German supermarkets. If Waitrose and M&S Food had a secret love-child, REWE would be it. It’s pricey, but it sells commodities that I like to call the ‘Rare Necessities’ – things like Marmite and proper cheddar and Salt & Vinegar crisps, which I deem necessary to life but can hardly ever find here in Deutschland. Anyway, I nipped into REWE to replenish my Carr’s Water Biscuits, and I was confronted by the most German thing I’ve ever seen in my life. No, it wasn’t Jogi Löw wearing lederhosen, swigging a wheat beer and smacking his thigh as a Bavarian brass band played Oktoberfest songs. I saw this:
‘What on earth is this?’ I hear you wonder. I loudly wondered the same, scratching my head in confusion until my husband got me with the German Spargelzeit programme. This contraption, my friends, is an Asparagus Peeler. I’m giving it a literal name because it doesn’t seem to exist outside the German-speaking world (I may be wrong on that point, but I’ve definitely never seen one in Sainsburys), so I don’t know what we’d call it in English. It removes that inedible hard bit from the asparagus, right there and then, in the middle of the fruit and vegetable aisle. Who knew that was a thing? There is actually a company somewhere making these machines – and employees of that company are making a living from the madness. No wonder this peculiar vegetable is nicknamed ‘white-gold’ – it’s certainly not because it tastes a million dollars. And the asparagus-related manufacturing doesn’t end there. Tchibo, that wonderful seller of all the things you never knew you needed, can equip you with a special tub to store your asparagus for freshness, as well as a special pot to lovingly cook it the way it deserves. Meanwhile, my local supermarket has a Spargelzeit-only offer on wines that pair well – they suggest a German riesling, naturally – while Knorr of the packet-mix world is cashing in on the fact that you’re supposed to smother the stuff in Hollandaise, encouraging consumers to buy six packs of sauce mix and get a free ‘fresh asparagus glass’ to store their prized white veg. Because all you ever needed in life was a fresh asparagus glass.
The history of asparagus in Germany can be traced back to the Romans, who believed it was both an aphrodisiac AND a contraceptive (before you get all excited, it has been proven to be neither.) Most likely this notion came from the shape of the vegetable; when you swap green for white and you’re left with a flesh-coloured rod with a bulbous end, you start to understand that the Romans were a dirty-minded bunch. Although their claims on asparagus being a cross between Microgynon and Viagra are disputed, asparagus certainly does have cleansing properties, as testified by the pungent aroma in all German toilets at this time of year. But I have to confess, I’m still too British to get fully on board with Spargel-mania, whether it’s going to up my libido or clean my kidneys or merely lead to my inclusion into German society. In the past ten days I’ve eaten it four times, but I’m still not a serious fan, unlike my German colleagues who whoop with genuine happiness when they see it’s on the lunch menu. Unfortunately though there is no escaping it. Aside from it being the first thing I see in every supermarket, restaurants across the country will soon start serving their seasonal Spargel menus and as I’m visiting my Spargel-loving in-laws in the heart of Baden-Württemberg before June 24th, I’m sure to be force-fed a kilo of it before the season ends – although you can rest assured that I’ll be giving asparagus ice-cream a miss. The Asparagus Queen (yes that really is a thing) is already reigning supreme, attending press conferences and festivals to represent her realm of white gold. Luckily for her, I won’t be jumping forward to steal her crown.