We are in the middle of one of the truly great times of the year in Bavaria. Alexander Pope wrote in his poem titled “An Essay on Man”, “hope springs eternal in the human breast”, and the same can be said for spring in Bavaria and Germany, the land often shrouded in grey. The reason for this is atypical, unbridled enthusiasm in the Bavarians and Germans, and a joy to watch. The season’s first homegrown asparagus has arrived! But it is more than a vegetable; it is a culture.
Ah yes, ‘Spargelzeit’ (asparagus season) is here. Fifty-five tons of the edible ivory will be devoured in a year here. Nothing seems to captivate the Germans, the Bavarians even more so, than those 8 weeks that end on June 24th, or ‘Johannistag’ (the birthdate of John the Baptist). And the fascination with the little green or white sprouts runs across all generations, genders and socioeconomic strata. The health benefits of asparagus are many and well-documented (editor’s note: and now disputed), but the love of it goes well beyond that. But why?
The history of the vegetable goes back around 4,000 years and it is grown throughout the world. Most people eat the green variety but the white type grows larger and is tenderer, but is much more expensive because the cultivating and harvesting methods are very tedious and complex, and is therefore, understandably, more coveted by Germans. Asparagus tastes unlike anything else, it is a truly unique flavor. Most people who like it love it. Most Germans and Bavarians love it. While watching Bavarians and Germans eat asparagus one senses it is an ecstatic experience for them.
Whether you eat white or green asparagus the most important factor is it must be fresh. Any person with a little bit of experience with asparagus can taste fresh from not so fresh because the flavor turns from a sweet yet distinct mild flavor to a bitter one as it ages. This brings us to our second point of why the Germans like it so much.
The Germans, very rightfully so, are proud of their skills of organizing and transporting. Getting asparagus to the market while it still has retained the desired freshness requires the skill set that most Germans seem to have hardwired into their DNA. From harvesting to consumption, the whole process should be completed in about 12-24 hours when things are working properly.
An old farmer’s rule says asparagus is best when “Morgens gestochen und mittags verzehrt” (picked in the early morning and eaten at midday). This is also why many Germans choose to take their cars to the source of the asparagus. Here in Bavaria, the most famous places for asparagus are Schrobenhausen and Abensberg, with a friendly rivalry the result. I’ve been told that some people can tell the difference between the two. I cannot, though not for a lack of trying.
Anyplace in Bavaria has excellent asparagus, and the countryside is dotted with stands that sell the very freshest and tastiest product. Whenever a box of fresh asparagus is opened it is a reaffirmation of what it is to be German with their strict rules of time and order.
The aforementioned third reason, and I believe the most important, is that Spargelzeit signals the end of winter in a way altogether different from Carnival or even Starkbierfest (Strong Beer Festival). While those celebrate the end of winter with lots of alcohol and craziness, asparagus is the first fresh vegetable or fruit grown in Germany that can be eaten by Germans, and can be enjoyed by everyone to some degree or another.
Spargelzeit heralds the warmth of spring, with its infinite promise of great weather (before June’s reality of cold rain dampens the excitement), a return to the outdoors, the eating of fresh fruits and vegetables after a winter of heavy roasted meats, sauerkraut and dumplings. Quite often in May the weather in Bavaria is what can only be described as sublime, as God intended Mankind to live. The Bavarian sky takes on its special blue hue with a few puffy white clouds. Farmhouse balconies are tidied up and flowers are planted, as the gardens are readied for a season of grilling and beer drinking. Bicycles are serviced and people begin to try to lose their ‘Winterspeck” (winter’s bacon-the paunch).
If you don’t know how to prepare asparagus have no fear, nearly any decent restaurant has a “Spargel Menu”, that’s right, a menu devoted entirely to asparagus. From soups and starters to main courses and desserts (yes, it is even in some desserts!), one does not have to look far for some excellent dishes that celebrate asparagus. And remember, the smell in the WC (toilet) a few hours after eating asparagus can mean only one thing this year: spring is on the way (and Germany is the World Cup favorites!)!