When makeshift stalls and signs advertising fresh asparagus pop up along the roadside, Germans know it's "Spargelzeit," the brief asparagus season. Over a few weeks, people go wild with asparagus dishes and every restaurant has a special asparagus menu. In North Rhine-Westphalia, 140 farms have mapped out a distinctive culinary route they've called the "Spargelstrasse" (Asparagus Road).
Crisp, slender spears
Customers have a choice of different qualities, the most expensive being the stalks that are straight, have a length of about 22 centimeters and tightly closed tips, followed by less-perfect spears – too thin, bended – or even broken. No fuss: some stalls sell ready-peeled asparagus, as unlike the green variety, white asparagus must be peeled.
Perfect, broken or peeled
Germans can never seem to get enough of the slender white stalks only available for a few weeks each year: the season begins in mid April and invariably ends on June 24. Supermarkets, farms, farmer's markets and roadside vendors categorize and price the vegetable according to length and tips. In 2017, customers paid an average of €6.70 ($8.22) for a kilo of white asparagus.
A classic dish
The "vegetable of kings" is traditionally served with melted butter or creamy rich Hollandaise sauce, boiled new potatoes and thin slices of cold ham. From soups, tartes and omelettes to schnapps, there's no limit to people's creativity when it comes to asparagus.
Asparagus was a delicacy even in ancient times. Roman historian Marcus Porcius Cato described its cultivation in his book "De agri cultura." King Louis XIV had asparagus grown in Versailles in 17th century France. In 1852, a cannery in the German town of Brunswick started canning asparagus: Finally, it was available year-round.
Harvested by hand
The stalks grow under long mounds of heaped soil, and unlike green asparagus, they need to be harvested before they reach the sunlight. It is labor-intensive work, as every single stalk is harvested by hand. In 2017, many thousands of workers — mainly from Romania and Poland — cut some 127,800 tons of white asparagus in Germany during the short season.
Queen of the stalks
In spring, asparagus-growing regions all over Germany invariably crown a new asparagus queen. The young women, often growers' daughters, promote and represent the seasonal delicacy. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is the most populous in Germany, requires "candidates to be between 18 and 25 years old and definitely independently mobile so they can cover events on their own."
A museum of its own
A museum in the Bavarian town of Schrobenhausen is dedicated solely to the royal vegetable. Opened in a 15th century tower in 1985, the museum was turned into the only European Asparagus Museum six years later. The exhibits shine a light on everything asparagus, including agriculture, history, literature, art and curios, including the above tongs.
Springtime in Germany means the countdown is on for the country's brief feast on a vegetable known as "white gold." The Germans' passion for white asparagus is celebrated in museums — and even by queens.
The harvest in Germany has only just begun but as always, the end is already in sight for this seasonal vegetable: an old farmer's saying has it that when the cherries turn red, the time for harvesting asparagus is over.
More specifically, the season ends on June 24, the feast day of St. John. "Until St John's, don't forget this, you have seven weeks to eat asparagus," according to yet another old proverb. The plant simply needs to recover for the next year and a new cycle of pleasing Germans with nutrient-rich spears low in calories — as long as you don't smother the vegetables in melted butter or Hollandaise sauce!
The southwestern city of Schwetzingen, which presents itself as Germany's "Asparagus Town," offers a host of asparagus-related events in April and May, including art projects, photo exhibits, tours, workshops on how to cut the vegetable and the traditional Schwetzingen Asparagus Run over five and 10 kilometers.
In March, the European Commission added asparagus cultivated around the city of Beelitz in the state of Brandenburg to the list of protected European products. Like regional German beer, gingerbread, sausages and ham, Beelitz asparagus can now proudly bear the EU seal Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).
Despite its love of the "white gold," Germany is not the world's main producer of asparagus, however — that is still China.
The gallery above explores more aspects of the country's asparagus culture. The one below takes a look at vegetables that are common in Germany, but might not be as popular elsewhere.
This member of the cabbage family - the name means "cabbage turnip" - is a common vegetable throughout Germany. It is mild, crisp and juicy when eaten raw, and soft and creamy when steamed and served puréed or in a sauce, soup or casserole. It's often called kohlrabi in English, too.
It is emerald green and has crisp crinkly leaves, lots of vitamin C and a distinct taste. Savoy cabbage is great in soups and stews, or steamed as a side dish. What Germans call "Wirsing" is a staple at German farmers' markets and in supermarket produce aisles all year round.
Turnip greens - "Rübstiel" in German (literally, beet stems) - are a regional specialty and are particular common in Germany's western Rhineland area and in the Netherlands. Their tender stems are chopped, steamed and mixed with potatoes or added to stews. "Rübstiel" aficionados can look forward two harvests a year - in spring and fall.
This member of the Allium family - known as ramsons, wild garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, or bear's garlic - is kin to onions, chives and garlic. It grows in the forest and makes an excellent pesto. It smells like garlic, and tastes like garlic. Known in German as "Bärlauch," it is very popular in Germany and can be found in anything from soups and salads to dips, quiches and cheese.
Black salsify is a long, slender white taproot covered with a dark skin. "Schwarzwurzel" (black root) in German, it is also known as the "poor man's asparagus" or "winter asparagus" and is a typical winter vegetable. It is served when the Germans' beloved white asparagus is not yet in season, steamed, with boiled potatoes and butter.
The white vegetable in the photo above is actually asparagus. The green variety is more popular in other countries, but Germans love their white asparagus and anxiously await its arrival in spring, keeping a lookout in late April for the first stalks of their "white gold" to appear in stores and roadside stands.
Parsely root, which is easily confused with the slightly larger parsnips, is the third vegetable from the left, next to the black salsify. It is a winter vegetable that has been used in Europe for centuries, in soups, stews, and mixed veggie dishes. The smaller the root, the more tender it is, experts say - and it's a great source of vitamin C, too.
If you ever come to Bavaria and order a typical "Brotzeit" (bread time) snack to go with your beer, you'll find a crispy white garnish, sometimes draped in elaborate twists and curls on your plate. They're called "Radi," and are a spicy white radish that is full of vitamin C and always eaten raw. The word derives from the Latin for root, "radix." Its cousin, the radish, is "Radieschen" in German.