Have any of you read the bestseller book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” written by a French woman, Mireille Guiliano, who talks in her book about the difference between seasonal and seasonless food, and the culture of the food consumption in France vs. USA?
In her book Guiliano talks how surprised she was when she first came to USA to find out that regardless of whether some fruits and vegetables were seasonal, the American grocery stores still would have everything all year around, while in Europe, these foods are seasonable and are usually accessible only during their seasons. Like, for example, strawberries – their season is in June or peaches and watermelons – their season is in August. But in America, one can find them at the stores all year around.
The Guiliano then wrote that there’s a reason for the seasonal foods – they are at their best taste during their respected seasons, which explains the tasteless taste of those strawberries sold during winter in USA. Growing up in the Eastern Europe, I’ve been exposed only to the seasonal vegetables and fruits, and I remembered the taste of those seasonable foods when we came to America.
Since then it’s been very hard to find the same taste in the available fruits and vegetables at the stores in US, which led me to believe that there’s some ‘truth’ and sense to why certain produces should be only consumed during their harvest season – they taste so much better!
With the increased support of the local farms the Americans living in the urban cities finally got a chance to shop the farmer’s markets, which are more pricey than the supermarkets, but they also offer the seasonal foods, the taste of which, when consuming, does make a difference.
In Europe, however, the seasonal produce has been always around. Most Europeans don’t even understand why someone would want to buy cherries in the winter and/or mandarins in the summer, when it’s not their harvest season? Europeans believe that the consumption of the foods should be seasonal, this way one would appreciate the food he/she eats so much more and would have something to look forward to from season to season. This is how I was growing up as well, which was very natural for me to expect certain vegetables and fruits only during their natural harvesting seasons.
The White Asparagus Season in Germany:
For Germans the Spargelzeit, or the white asparagus season, is an eagerly anticipated sign of spring. Depending on the weather, the season for asparagus begins some time in April and lasts until St. John the Baptist’s feast day June 24, and during this time the country is gripped by ‘Asparagus Fever’.
Everything comes with asparagus in the restaurants, the farmer’s markets offer abundance of asparagus (most of which is white, not green as we are used to in USA) – small and large, and any other supporting products that are used in the making of the asparagus dishes, like the Hollandaise sauce. The Hollandaise sauce is the main and most popular sauce used to serve the white asparagus with, and, to tell you the truth, it goes very well with it. It can be bought in a box or made at home from scratch.
The Germans consider asparagus – a royal vegetable that is why it’s served in some of the best restaurants and homes in the country.
However, it wasn’t until it was discovered in Asia that asparagus was even considered to be ‘eadible’.
The History of How White Asparagus Tradition Has Become So Prominent in Germany:
Around 2,000 years ago, green asparagus spread from Asia to the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea where it became a delicacy.
At the time the word ‘asparagus’ was used by the Greeks for most stalk type vegetables but eventually described just this one, which the Romans transported, together with many other plant species, when crossing the Alps to conquer northern Europe’s ‘uncivilized’ tribes.
However, there was a time when asparagus fell out of favour. It was after 300 AD and it was ‘gone’ until the 11th century, when it was brought ‘back’ to existence after it’s been used as a medicinal herb usually grown in German monastery gardens and prepared by monks.
But it wasn’t until the reign of Louis XIV – the French Sun King – who found asparagus to be up to his taste, that asparagus regained popularity in Europe as a luxury vegetable reserved for the tables of nobles and the various royal courts.
Then in 16th century Germany ‘Spargel’ began to be cultivated around Stuttgart, and gained a nickname, ‘The Royal Vegetable’, because, as in France, it was only available to the nobility. But it was only a matter of time before all the Germany fell in love with asparagus. By the middle of the 19th century it was popular with all levels of society. The ‘Spargelzeit’ – Asparagus Season – had become and up to this day a huge event that is celebrated throughout the country. It’s all the farms that grow asparagus come every day to the main square of the towns to sell it to the public and restaurants, but when all the restaurants that offer German cuisine make up a ‘seasonal menu’ for the months of the asparagus season that is called “asparagus menu’, featuring all kinds of dishes with the asparagus.
Moreover, the market vendors provide free access to ‘Asparagus Shelling Machines’ that allow to easily clean up the asparagus and prepare it for the cooking. The farmers also sell ingredients for the asparagus dishes – from Hollandaise sauce in the box (requires just to warm up), special spices and the potato kinds that go well with the asparagus.
There are also many asparagus competitions that take place around the country, such as who grew the largest asparagus, asparagus peeling contests, educational seminars about asparagus and cooking courses, festivals, tours, and road side asparagus booths – very similar to the “U-pick” signs of the farms in America.
The largest two regions of the asparagus growers in Germany are considered the Baden and Lower Saxony regions, which happens to be the part of Germany, where my parents live now.
Two cities that are worth of mentioning when it comes to the ‘asparagus story’ are Schwetzingen and Schrobenhausen.
Schwetzingen And It’s White Asparagus Fever:
Schwetzingen self proclaims self to be the ‘asparagus capital”. It’s where in the 17th century Charles Theodore, Prince- Elector , Count Palatine and Duke of Bavaria (Karl Theodor, in German) started to grow green asparagus as a competition between the princes. Now, every May at the castle the city’s Spargelzeit festival takes place.
They even built a bronze monument at the castle gates to commemorate the Spargelfraue – to the women-farmers in the past, who did all the hard work harvesting asparagus: from very early morning digging to selling at the market till very late.
Schrobenhausen And It’s White Asparagus Fever:
In the city of Schrobenhausen in the upper Bavaria, near Munich – in a 15th century tower is the home of the European Asparagus Museum (Europäisches Spargelmuseum), which was opened in 1985. Schrobenhausen is also called The Home of Asparagus Queen. This museum is in the possession of the famous Andy Warhol painting of the asparagus “Silver Asparagus” and offers an exhibition on everything related to the asparagus history and industry: from horticulture to the medicine. They also hold annual competition, where the asparagus women-growers compete for the Asparagus Queen title, which has been awarded every year since 1975.
While visiting my parents in Germany this May – when the asparagus season is in its pick – I was surprised to see everywhere mostly white asparagus, while in USA it’s the green asparagus that’s more common. I’ve learned that even though the white and green asparagus come from the same plant and the green variety is more popular worldwide, it’s the white asparagus that is favorite with the Germans. They even call it ‘white gold.’
The first time I tried it, I found it tasteless. It tasted more ‘watery’ and it’s hard to cut as it’s more “fibrous” and this is exactly how many other people feel about the white kind. However, it’s the first time one tastes it that might taste like no taste at all. Moreover, the Germans are willinging to spend more time and effort for the asparagus to turn white by ensuring there’s no contact with the sun to turn it green. To blanch the white asparagus spears, German people continually mold around them as they push through the earth.
This was a method first discovered by the Romans but not followed in Germany until the mid 17th century, after which green Spargel fell out of fashion and never returned to its former popularity.
Getting the white asparagus harvest is a hard labor, which requires a close watch, the spears are harvested individually and it involves digging down to cut the spear under the earth, and it has to be done by hand with a special knife as a machine would break the stalks. Growing and harvesting the white asparagus requires the real manual labor. It takes two to three years for a newly planted asparagus bed to produce a first crop, fields need constant care before the harvest, and each stalk must be taken from the beds individually, so the manpower involved means asparagus starts the season by being very expensive and as the weeks pass, although the price drops, it never becomes inexpensive. On the contrary, despite the abundance of the asparagus in the stores and farmer’s markets, the dishes with asparagus in the restaurants are even more expensive than the dishes with mean and chicken.
Now, wouldn’t you agree that it does make sense to call the white asparagus ‘white gold’?
How To Eat White Asparagus:
The most popular way to serve the cooked white asparagus – per my own experience in Germany – is with ham, potato and warm Hollandaise sauce. The potato ‘side’ dishes usually vary: from boiled potatoes and home fried to hash-browns (which is not the same as American hash-browns, the German hash-browns look more like large potato pancakes). German believe that the white asparagus goes very well with ham and potatoes, but my mom cooks it also with fish and/or chicken schnitzel. Also very popular asparagus creme soup. Oh, you can just eat it by itself, with a bit of cheese sprinkle over the top, salt and pepper.
Where To Find White Asparagus Dishes in USA:
If asparagus is something that you really like and you are interested in testing the asparagus seasonal dishes, you can inquire with your local German institution – embassy and/or restaurant and/or organization of some German culture – if they are going to celebrate the Spargel season. You might be surprised to find out that a lot of them do follow the traditions of their country abroad. In San Francisco, for example, the German American community has been hosting a special event – the White Asparagus Gala Dinner, featuring traditional original spargel dishes.
You can also check in with the Goethe Institut that has offices in almost all big cities in USA. Or you can also inquire at the German restaurants in your city whether they do the seasonal asparagus dishes.
Other Seasonal Foods in Europea:
Europe is all about the seasonal foods, and it’s not the first time that when I visit my family in Germany I came across some seasonal foods. When I visited my parents last September, it happened to be the season for the chanterelles and most of the restaurants served special dishes made with chanterelles: from crème soups to beef medallions cooked in chanterelles broth.
Taken that I’ve been always a big fan of the chanterelles mushrooms – since the childhood in Russia – I didn’t mind that anywhere I went in the city was something with the chanterelles that I was happily to eat.
Do you research before you go anywhere in Europe to see if your traveling dates fall onto some ‘seasonal foods’ and ‘festivities’. Follow me on Twitter @AlisaKrutovsky – I often twit when I travel.
Bon Apetite, or as the Germans would say: “Guten Appetit, und komm wieder!”