I am fuzzy from jet lag and a trip to Germany — a week in Berlin and a week in Dresden. My head is full of old masters (plus a lot of mind-blowing contemporary art), I am footsore from walking for miles through castles and train stations and entire baroque villages, and I have consumed my fill of wurst and golden reisling. All went as expected — however — the most exciting surprise of the trip was — (drumroll, please) — I found that I had arrived right at the beginning of spargel season!!
Yes, you may well be asking yourself, what the heck is spargel?
It’s asparagus actually, only not quite.
Spargel, in Germany, is usually white asparagus, that grows within a very short season — from about April 23rd to the end of June. The season is called spargelzeit and is the highlight of the springtime German foodie calendar. Tiny villages have festivals and crown asparagus queens. There are spargel museums and a spargel cycling trail along the spargel-spangled routes of the Saxon countryside. The spargel is valued so much that it is dubbed “white gold” or “edible ivory” by those with a penchant for metaphor. This asparagus is pale because it is grown in mounds, with soil covering the shoots. With the lack of exposure to sunlight there is no photosynthesis and the shoots remain white.
The flavour of the white asparagus is softer, milder and sweeter than the green asparagus that we enjoy — I find it almost buttery, but maybe that’s because it’s usually served drenched with butter. It can be boiled or steamed and served with hollandaise sauce or sprinkled with olive oil or parmesan cheese or coated with mayonnaise. I actually enjoyed it rolled in an omelette, served with scallops and in a broth with shrimps. It can also be found on pizza and is often served with ham slices, boiled new potatoes, wiener schnitzel or in crêpes. There is spargel cream soup, spargel in chive beurre blanc and spargel wrapped in prosciutto. Superstar chef Susur Lee, apparently, likes to eat it raw. But maybe, just maybe, it is best appreciated on its own, with salt and pepper and lots of melted butter.
It is possible to get this decadent and luxurious treat in Canada occasionally but it is very expensive. I haven’t seen any yet, but it may at the market soon. If you find some, you need to know that it must be kept in a moist environment or it goes woody. The class A spargel is very straight and absolutely white in colour with tightly closed tips. When buying, always check to see that the cut ends of each stalk are not dried out. And it must be peeled before cooking.
Therein lies the challenge. Unlike green asparagus, where you seek the finest and thinnest stalks, with white asparagus you want the stalks to be thicker so that they can be peeled more easily. You can use a vegetable peeler or a paring knife and peel from the top down. For cooking, there are tall narrow asparagus cooking pots which allow the shoots to be steamed gently with their tips out of the water. (I always cook my asparagus in an old, tall coffee perk which seems to work pretty well.) The spargel needs to be cooked longer than green asparagus, because the stalks are thicker. Maybe even 15 to 20 minutes — keep trying a piece to check it out.
If you are fortunate enough to be served white asparagus in Germany, you should be acquainted with certain traditions. Spargel etiquette proclaims that one must eat it with a knife and fork no matter how much you’d like to just pick up the spears with your fingers and dip them in the butter. It is considered very discourteous to ever leave any leftover spargel on your plate. This is more serious than it sounds because the Germans don’t fool around with meagre portions. A proper serving is considered to be 500 grams, or one pound per person. And treat this food with respect. Spargel is expensive and time consuming to grow and the harvest is small — so it is also considered impolite to ask for more.
The question of wine to go with asparagus is one of the on-going debates for wine writers. What little I have gleaned, is that reds and oaky chardonnays should be avoided. Instead, stick to fragrant, light, crispy spring wines. Sauvignon blancs and pinot grigios are fine, but in Germany I was intent to try the dry (it should say “trocken”) reislings, or a gewürtztraminer or an Austrian grüner veltliner.
Food writer M. F. K. Fisher always opined that you can tell a lot about a people by what they like to eat. I am gazing at the photos of these pale, phallic spears and still grappling with that question.
Anyway — here’s my favorite easy hollandaise sauce recipe, a great accompaniment for either green or white asparagus.
Quick Hollandaise Sauce
from Craig Claiborne’s “The New York Times Cookbook”
1/2 cup butter
3 egg yolks
2 tbsps. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. salt
pinch of cayenne
Heat butter to bubbling, but do not brown. Into an electric blender put egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and cayenne. Blend on low and add hot butter gradually. Blend about 15 seconds, until sauce is thickened and smooth.
This makes about a quarter of a cup of sauce but it can be doubled if desired. Not authentic, but quick, easy and good.