Asparagus

Why Germany Calls This Vegetable 'White Gold'

Spargelzeit—white asparagus season in Germany—is coming.

March  6, 2020
Photo by Emily Cataneo

It’s March now, and spring is still months away. German winters are a shock—the sun rises after eight and sets before four, the streets smell like coal, everything is chapped. I know that we must endure eight more weeks of this Central European cloud cover and pallid false sun before the dam bursts, spring comes, and spargel, or white asparagus, appears in every supermarket, street-corner stand, and Sunday-dinner plate in the country.

When I moved to Germany in 2014—25 and without a plan—I had very little idea of what to expect from my new life in my temporary home, let alone of the things I’d eat and come to love. I remember one conversation I had with a friend a few weeks before I left.

“Pasta is my go-to meal here in the states. I wonder what my go-to meal in Germany will be. Giant pretzels?” I half-joked.

It turned out that pretzels and bratwurst, those stereotypical emblems of German cuisine, barely factored into my experience in Berlin. Germany’s regional cultures are still strong, and pretzels and bratwurst hail from Bavaria, while Berlin is in the heart of the northern state of Brandenburg. Years later, I think of Club-Mate, the beloved caffeinated drink for hackers and coders, or of the two-euro cappuccinos I used to buy in glass cups, or of the Turkish döner boxes of fries topped with meat, garlic, and spicy sauce.

Harvesting spargel by hand. Photo by Emily Cataneo

And, of course, I think of spargel. Spargel is popular elsewhere, too—you can catch it at a market in France, and even in some American supermarkets these days—but Germans are its true devotees. As of 2018, they are the fourth-highest growers of spargel in the world.

Spargel does not look appetizing to the untrained eye. It’s a variety of white asparagus the color of larvae; when cooked, it dangles limply and is difficult to cut through. But upon taste, it’s easy to see why many Germans refer to it as “white gold” and pay more per kilo for it than meat. If you peel and boil it for just the right amount of time, you’ll unlock its unique flavor: subtler, lighter, slightly sweeter than its green cousin. It’s also thicker, more fibrous, and harder to chew, and yet somehow more satisfying because of it.

Because I grew up in New England, I’ve become intrigued, as an adult, by how cultures in other harsh climates mark the seasons. Germans eat in a seasonal pattern: strawberries in summer, mushrooms in fall, a frenzy of spargel as soon as winter comes to a close. The white asparagus season is strictly circumscribed, lasting from April, when the spargel starts to emerge, to June 24, a Christian feast day that coincides with the beginning of summer.

During those weeks, when the days stretch until ten at night and the chestnut trees bloom, you can visit spargel festivals, where spargel-growers crown Spargel Queens—like the Queen of the May, but with asparagus. Cycle through the countryside, and you can see fields stretching to the horizon, striated by gleaming plastic over the dirt mounds where the spargel peeks out of the earth. You’ll find wooden stands, in the cities and suburbs, proclaiming with triumph and relief, Spargelzeit is here.

Last year, to understand more about the cultural significance of spargel, I called Claudia Freitag-Mair, who works at the European Asparagus Museum in Schrobenhausen. She told me that spargel came to Northern Europe from China, Greece, and Rome. It was revered for its medicinal properties, grown in castles, served at banquets with special silver cutlery, and remained a royal food through the early modern period. But then, thanks to a few 19th-century entrepreneurs, widespread cultivation began—and so did the layperson’s obsession.

Möwis with spargel. Photo by Emily Cataneo

But of course, this is Germany, where the suffering, violence, and upheaval of the 20th century spared nothing, including this beloved plant. Spargel cultivation was restricted during the war because it didn’t have enough calories to make it worthwhile, neither was it able to flourish in East Germany on a large scale. But there, it endured in home gardens where communism couldn’t stop the vegetable’s devotees. Germans continued to grow, barter, and sell it to each other secretly—and sometimes export it to West Berlin, with permission. With the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, western spargel farmers headed east to return this beloved crop to the soil.

Manuel Möwis’ grandfather was one of those farmers. Now, he manages the family spargel farm with his father, Uwe, in Oderau, a village just across the Oder River from Poland. He eats the vegetable every day during Spargelzeit. I met Mowis on a return visit to Berlin in the spring of 2018, accompanied by my friend, Erika; he showed us around his farm, and explained why spargel can go for as much as 13 euro per kilo.

In farming, too, spargel is similar to its green cousin, but it turns bitter if it’s exposed to the sun. So farmers, like Mowis, grow it underground using a complex labyrinth of dirt and tarp. The produce is so expensive chiefly because it must be hand-harvested: machines lift the heavy tarps off the hillocks of dirt, revealing the spargel’s white tips peeking from the sandy soil. Workers bend down and use a special curved tool to gently snick the asparagus off its root system, one by one. There’s no way to mechanically remove it from the earth without damaging the stalks. After being harvested, it’s shocked in an ice bath, sorted, photographed (to make sure each spear is up to par), jet-cleaned, and then, for those who want the pricier cook-ready spargel, peeled by a series of rotating black cylinders.

“Even if you can get spargel from Peru and Greece, people [in Germany] don’t eat it. We eat it only during the season,” Mowis said. Erika echoed Mowis’s sentiment. She pointed out that spargel season was getting too long, with farmers using layers of tarp to jumpstart the asparagus’ growth and harvest it too soon. “Spargelzeit was April until June 24,” she insisted. “That’s the way it should be.”

I could understand Erika and Mowis’s strict boundaries around Spargelzeit, as I, too, anchor myself to the seasons. I moved back to America a few years ago, and it’s increasingly unlikely that I will again live in another culture long enough to adopt new methods of marking the passage of time. Without me, spring is unfurling in Europe, and spargel will soon again creep out of the soil, into the basket of a different 25-year-old watching her world open as spring unfolds.

Which vegetable represents the coming of spring to you? Tell us about it in the comments!

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emilycataneo

Written by: emilycataneo

I'm a writer and journalist.

1 Comment

tortellini March 10, 2020
Hi, from the opposite End of Germany (the sunny southwest). I live in Baden-Württemberg where the Spargel grows a little sooner than up north. The Rhine valley has the perfect climate and sandy soil for Spargel. The season ends on June 24th because the plant needs resting and will produce better Spargel the following year. Here we see fields of whispy green asparagus plants growing above ground, ensuring a good harvets the next year.
And its always a thrill to wait for the first asparagus of the season...