Where and how to buy asparagus – plus a selection of related recipes…
If you are new to Germany, you have probably already been somewhat taken aback by the passion with which the Germans celebrate asparagus.
Every year in spring, the whole country goes mad for Spargelsaison. Spargelstände pop up on every street corner, blackboards proclaiming “frischer Spargel” litter the streets and many restaurants have a special “Spargelmenü”, dedicating to dishes showcasing the vegetable.
Even the supermarkets get in on the act, with pyramids of Hollandaise sauce and pre-packed smoked ham popping up in the vegetable section and notices announcing the beginning of “Spargelzeit”.
There is considerable debate within Germany as to which region produces the best asparagus, but the generally-agreed front runners are Bruchsal, in Baden-Württemberg, or Beelitz, in Brandenburg.
I wouldn’t dare offer an opinion as to which is objectively better. But Beelitzer asparagus is the one to go for in Berlin.
Beelitz is only 50km away from Berlin and the fresh Beelitzer spargel you can buy at the special street stands is likely to have been picked only that very morning. Seasonal workers – usually from eastern Europe – get up with the dawn to harvest the spears, pack them onto lorries and rapidly deliver to the end sales points. Many farms have their own stands dotted around Berlin, dedicated to selling their own asparagus, transported as quickly as possible from field to customer.
If you fancy a sunny spring day out of the city, you could do worse than visit “Spargelstadt” Beelitz. There is a Spargelmuseum and an annual Spargelfest. And of course, the crowning point is a visit to one of the many, many Spargelhöfe.
Like a lot of German farms, many of these places actively welcome visitors and provide additional attractions. Jakob’s Hof has a highly rated restaurant and a children’s play area; Buschmann & Winkelmann has tree-top climbing and an events calendar packed with live music and teatime dancing sessions. If you book in advance, Elsholz even promises the opportunity to learn how to harvest your own asparagus from their fields.
It’s more likely, however, that you won’t be cutting your own and it really is important to get it as fresh as possible. Asparagus has a high natural sugar content, but as soon as it is picked, those sugars start gradually turning to starch, and flavour is lost accordingly.
In which case: inspect the cut ends of the asparagus you buy. The ends of the freshest spears will not be excessively dry; if you squeeze one lightly, you should even be able to see droplets of moisture oozing out.
When Germans talk about asparagus, they usually mean white asparagus. This is grown under thick cover, with the earth banked up around it. The lack of sunlight means the plants do not synthesise chlorophyll, and remain white, with a more subtle and delicate flavour. Green asparagus, on the other hand is allowed to stick its head above the ground, and develops a stronger, herby flavour along with its vibrant colour.
The preparation methods are different for each. White asparagus needs to be peeled and is usually best cooked in liquid for 10- 20 minutes, depending on thickness, until tender (although not soggy). Green asparagus is more versatile as it can stand up to stronger flavours. It can also be excellent grilled or roasted, but however you cook it, you definitely want it to retain some crunch. Boil for an absolute maximum of 5 minutes.
Which one to use depends on the dish. Both will shine with a few simple flavours and have a great affinity in particular with lemon, eggs, butter and ham. It can be as simple as wrapping a spear in ham and dipping it into your boiled egg.
Most restaurants at this time of year will serve a classic – and excellent – dish of white asparagus with hollandaise sauce and several different types of ham, accompanied by boiled potatoes or pancakes.
But when you have had your fill of the classics (and about two thirds of the way through the season, after he has been eating asparagus with sauce hollandaise every day for a month, even the most hardcore Spargelfanatiker will usually agree to try something different) I recommend you try a little experimentation…
White Asparagus Soup
Serves 6 as a starter
What to do with all those woody ends and peelings? Freeze them and add to a stockpot, of course. A few handfuls of asparagus trimmings simmered in your hot stock really add to the intense, yet delicate flavour of this sophisticated soup.
1 kg white asparagus
400g waxy potatoes, peeled and diced
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock
100ml white wine
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
25g of butter
a pinch of grated nutmeg
a few shavings of parmesan
a little chopped parsley
Start heating the stock gently. Wash and peel the asparagus and cut off the dry ends. Add the peelings and ends to the stock. Cut off the tips, slice very finely and reserve.
Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat, and fry the onion, celery and garlic gently for 5 minutes, until softened but not coloured. Chop the asparagus stems finely and add to the pan, along with the nutmeg and potatoes and fry for about 10 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until the alcohol has burnt off, then add the hot stock, holding back the asparagus trimmings. Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 10-15 minutes until the vegetables are cooked through. Blend thoroughly and (optional) pass through a sieve if you want an even smoother texture. Taste and season.
Return the smooth soup to the heat and stir in the cream. Divide between 6 soup bowls, each with a few shavings of parmesan, a little parsley and the raw slices of asparagus dropped in for a bit of crunch. It’s very good served with parmesan and almond biscuits, instead of bread on the side.
Spaghetti Carbonara w/ Green Asparagus
Serves 2 as a main course
An easy supper, that manages to be simultaneously luxurious and simple. I think the addition of crème fraîche helps keep the eggs from curdling, but you can omit it if you want to be strictly Italian.
200g dried pasta (a ribbon pasta, like spaghetti or fettuccini is best)
4 egg yolks
1 tbsp crème fraîche
100g cured bacon, diced (e.g. guanciale, pancetta)
6 spears green asparagus
30g parmesan or pecorino, freshly grated
Put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, fry the bacon in olive oil until crisp and golden. Beat the egg yolks together with the crème fraîche and cheese.
Cut off the woody ends of the asparagus and discard; cut the remaining spears into short chunks of around 3cm each.
When the water is boiling, cook the pasta according to packet instructions, until al dente. Add the asparagus to the pasta pot about 3 minutes before the pasta is due to be ready.
Drain the pasta and asparagus and return to the pot. Tip in the egg yolk mixture and stir so each strand of pasta is coated. The eggs will half cook and thicken in the residual heat to form a silky sauce. (If it is still looking very much like raw egg to you, set it back on the hob over a very low heat, for a few seconds. Be careful though, you will end up with curdled scrambled eggs in you overheat it.) Toss in the bacon pieces and serve immediately, with fresh black pepper.
Potatoes Boulangère w/ White Asparagus
Serves 4 as a side dish
I could eat this just as it is, but my recipe testers insisted it was better suited as a side dish. It certainly goes very well with either roast chicken or steak. Vegetarians can omit the ham and use vegetable stock, but I would then suggest scattering a little finely grated cheese on top on the final layer of potatoes.
600g waxy potatoes
500g white asparagus
400-500ml hot chicken stock
30g Serrano ham, or similar, shredded
1 clove garlic
half a lemon
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 200°C. Use half the butter to butter a large, shallow, ovenproof dish.
Peel and trim the asparagus and the potatoes. Slice the potatoes very finely, with a mandolin, if you have one. Cut each asparagus spear down its length into two long halves (or three, if they are very thick). Peel and finely slice the clove of garlic.
Put one layer of potato slices, slightly overlapping, into the dish. Add a layer of asparagus, scatter over some of the ham and a few slices of garlic. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and squeeze over a few drops of lemon juice. Repeat the layers, ending with a final layer of potatoes, until you have used them all up. Pour in the chicken stock until it comes up to just underneath the final layer of potatoes. Melt the remaining butter and brush it over the top.
Bake in the hot oven for about 30-40 minutes, until the potatoes are tender and the top layer golden and crisp. If the potatoes are cooked through, but the top has not crisped to your satisfaction, you may need to turn the heat up, or put it under a grill for a few minutes.
All photos by Kristi Korotash