Land where asparagus is king of spring

Email|Print| Text size + By William A. Davis
Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2005

Jo Handelsman, codirector of the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, led a lab meeting in the plant pathology department.WISCONSINProfessor Amy Wendt (left) lectured on antennae at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Christopher DeMarco has worked to add women faculty in electrical and computer engineering. GERMANYThe castle in Schwetzingen, an aristocratic town located between Mannheim and Heidelberg in western Germany -- a region called ''the Asparagus Triangle" -- was built in the 18th century to be a prince's summer residence. Today the castle is the scene of concerts, plays, and other events, such as this al fresco asparagus banquet in the formal gardens. These plump, creamy stalks piled high are considered the ''royal vegetable" at its best. Market stalls (bottom photo) gleam with asparagus from late April to early July.PHOTO/CASTLE ROAD ASSOCIATIONPHOTO/SCHWETZINGEN TOURIST OFFICEPHOTO/CASTLE ROAD ASSOCIATIONPHOTO/SCHWETZINGEN TOURIST OFFICEGERMANYPHOTO/SCHWETZINGEN TOURIST OFFICE

SCHWETZINGEN, Germany -- When you think of Germans and vegetables, what usually comes to mind are potatoes and cabbage, the latter probably in the form of sauerkraut. It's certainly true that both are ubiquitous on German family tables and restaurant menus.

There is another vegetable, however, that Germans are absolutely mad about and consume in massive amounts when they can: asparagus, and in particular, the delicately flavored white kind known here as ''the royal vegetable."

White asparagus is a symbol of spring in Germany, a kind of culinary first crocus, and its annual arrival is a cause for national celebration. During its season, roughly from the end of April into early July, most Germans eat asparagus at least once a day. Eateries all over the country from corner taverns to three-star restaurants will offer at least one asparagus dish and more often several. Some will feature almost nothing else.

I have been fortunate to be in Germany several times in asparagus season and gladly let myself get caught up in it, eating asparagus at every meal except breakfast. I never tired of the taste, and since there are only 100 calories in a pound of white asparagus, it did wonders for my waistline.

In season, more than 70,000 tons of asparagus are sold in Germany, virtually all of it white and most locally grown. ''Spargel" is cultivated in a number of places, but the consensus is that the finest white asparagus comes from an area between Heidelberg and Mannheim known as ''the Asparagus Triangle," centered on the aristocratic old town of Schwetzingen.

The soil here is what makes the difference. Light and sandy, it's ideal for mounding over asparagus beds to protect growing plants from direct exposure to the sun, which is what produces the chlorophyll that turns asparagus green. Green and white asparagus are genetically the same plant, but the white kind is more tender and has a distinctive nutty taste beloved by aficionados.

German friends tell me that what you should look for when buying white asparagus are spears that are round and plump, about an inch in diameter, and therefore easy to peel. Ideally, they also shoud be pure white from tip to base. Asparagus that is more ivory colored than creamy and has traces of purple in the tip has had some exposure to the sun. Off-white asparagus is only slightly less tasty than the creamy kind, but can be considerably cheaper.

For much of the year, the main attraction in Schwetzingen is its 18th-century Baroque castle, the palatial former summer residence of the prince electors of the Palatinate (the region around Heidelberg), which has one of the country's largest and most beautiful formal gardens. However, during asparagus season, what draws many visitors is the opportunity to buy their favorite vegetable fresh from a farm stand and also consume it in all sorts of tasty and imaginative dishes at local restaurants.

In the Asparagus Triangle, restaurants specializing in asparagus are as easy to find as steak houses in Texas, and chefs vie with one another to come up with new recipes. There are supposedly more than 40 ways to prepare it, but menus almost always will include staples such as asparagus with Black Forest ham or salmon, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, asparagus salad, and cream of asparagus soup. Many diners believe less is more and prefer their asparagus served simply, say drenched with melted butter or an oil and vinegar dressing.

Schwetzingen claims to be the ''Asparagus Capital of the World" and in season, the royal vegetable is indeed king. Asparagus sellers set up stalls piled high with white asparagus in the market square, just outside the gates of the castle, where there is also a bronze statue of a typical woman seller or ''spargelfrau." Restaurants offer competing asparagus menus, and shops sell asparagus-themed souvenirs and sweets. (A popular asparagus-shaped candy is made of white chocolate and filled with raspberry brandy.)

On the first weekend in May, the height of the season, Schwetzingen sponsors what amounts to the vegetarian equivalent of Oktoberfest. Among other events is an al fresco asparagus banquet in the garden of the electors' residence and concerts and theatrical performances in the castle's rococo gem of a theater, where a 7-year-old wunderkind named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gave a concert in 1763. An asparagus king and queen are chosen and presented with royal crowns -- made, of course, from asparagus spears.

A well-marked, 25-mile scenic tourist route called the Asparagus Road winds through the triangle connecting asparagus-producing towns and villages such as Ketsch, Hockenheim, Reilingen, and Rastatt. These communities have festivals that include events such as asparagus-peeling competitions.

The world champion asparagus peeler, according to the ''Guinness Book of World Records," is one Helmut Zipner, known as The Asparagus Tarzan, who managed to peel a full ton of asparagus in 16 hours. He also has written a best-selling cookbook with all his favorite asparagus recipes.

German families, I was told, own a special deep pot just for cooking asparagus. The recommended method is to tie peeled asparagus in a bundle and stand it upright in salted boiling water that comes about three quarters of the way up the stalks. Cook 10-20 minutes or so, depending on how chewy you like your asparagus.

William A. Davis is a freelance writer in Cambridge. He can be reached at

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