If you’re new to Germany, you will have begun to hear a buzz everywhere by now. Do not be alarmed, this is normal. Just listen closely, it’s only excited Germans talking about their Spargelsaison plans – that is, where they’re going to buy, cook and consume piles of asparagus as it comes into season.
Asparagus can, of course, be quite delicious. But don’t be surprised that the Germans almost exclusively favour the white version over its less fussy green cousin, or the seldom seen violet one.
It’s hard to overstate the German obsession with this vegetable. And their hunger for it is growing: according to recent figures released by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Germans consumed 127,000 tonnes of asparagus last year, four percent more than the year before.
I might be partly responsible for this increase, seeing as how last year was my first year in Germany, and I fell in love with its subtle taste straight off.
The white asparagus adoration in Germany is much like Indians’ (including mine) obsession with mangoes, which you incidentally get around the same time in India as asparagus season in Germany, somewhere between April and June.
But here’s how the asparagus craze in Germany is different from the mango craze in India: Mango is often called the ‘King of fruits’, but unlike Germany, where you have the concept of a Spargelkönigin or an Asparagus Queen, there is no mango royalty in India.
I spoke to the current reigning Asparagus Queen of North-Rhine Westphalia, 20-year-old Katharina Rau, who when she’s not reigning over her vegetable realm, is studying to become a teacher of English and Catholic Theology.
I asked her about the pageant, which I had gleefully imagined as a group of hopefuls answering questions about asparagus and demonstrating how well they could pluck and peel it. “It wasn’t a competition with a jury where we had to dance or something like that,” Katharina said, disabusing me of my notions.
“I sent in my application with a photo of myself and what connects me to asparagus – the fact that I’ve been selling it at a farm for five or six years. They short-listed me and I then went in for an interview.”
The duties of an Asparagus Queen, in case you were wondering, consist of representing the vegetable, attending press conferences, festival processions and basically promoting asparagus for the delicious treat that it is. I was still feeling disheartened by the fact that there’s no jury and no talent round, but she cheered me up a bit when she added that she wears her crown and sash to all official appearances.
The simplest way to eat the white vegetable is to cook it in some boiling water and serve with some salt and butter. But it doesn’t end there: Type ‘Spargel Rezepte’ in any search engine and it will almost explode. There are many, many recipes. Several of them are gourmet; some have secret recipes and are served only at certain restaurants. There are recipes with strawberries, roasted asparagus, cooked, steamed and fried asparagus.
But how do you know when it’s fresh enough? The picking of the vegetable is given a lot of attention in the German media, an annual article being obligatory for every major publication.
Mention wanting to buy some and everyone bombards you with tips about checking to see how moist it is and how to best store it (in the fridge, wrapped in a moist cloth).
Here are a few more friendly, innocent facts I found: It’s always peeled from up to down, starting at the head. It can be male, female and there are apparently also many transitioning or cross-over varieties. The male variety is (surprise, surprise), longer than the female one and also thin and elongated.
If all of that didn’t make you giggle, hearing Germans say things like ‘the head is the best bit’ should do it.
They’re right, of course. It is the yummiest bit. But strangely enough, there aren’t a lot of jokes based on the vegetable’s phallic shape.
When I asked some of the Germans I know if they knew any asparagus jokes, most gave me amused looks or rolled their eyes. Either way, the sentiment seemed to be: Why on earth would you want to joke about asparagus?
The point is, Germans love their Spargel and that love, being as deep as it is, blinds them to its funny side. “I don’t think it’s that,” said Queen Katharina. “If there was a funny joke about asparagus, Germans would certainly be able to laugh at it and enjoy it. It’s just that I haven’t really ever heard one,” she said laughing.
This year, the season has started later than usual because of what I’m calling ‘The Winter That Refused To End.’ So Spargel innocents, prep yourself by getting a good Spargeltopf, the special tall saucepans the vegetable is typically cooked in. Eat your fill till about the end of June, when the season ends.
And if you find that hard to remember, remember the old Franconian saying: Kirsche rot, Spargel tot or “When the cherry’s red, the asparagus is dead.”