You might have heard recently about the German government’s decision to allow thousands of specialist seasonal workers from eastern Europe – mainly from Romania and Poland – to come and pick the country's white asparagus (Spargel) crop.
This is a unique exemption to the country’s policy against allowing foreign workers to enter Germany during the current coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in border closures and wide-ranging 'no contact' restrictions.
Workers are being flown into the country and taken by bus directly to farms so they can harvest the crops while observing strict social distancing measures. These specialist workers are needed as Spargel requires training to pick.
Why all the fuss? It's because in Germany, Spargel is treated with almost religious reverence. As soon as the weather begins to improve in mid-April, stands selling the vegetable appear all over the country.
Traditionally, it is served steamed, with a hollandaise sauce and almost every German you meet will have their own special favourite recipe.
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In non-corona times, around 300,000 seasonal workers travel to Germany each year to help with fruit and vegetable harvests, according to the German Farmers' Association.
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- German word of the day: Spargelzeit
Why is Germany so Spargel-obsessed?
The roots of Germany’s love affair with Spargel are somewhat obscured, but as far as can be ascertained, it was first introduced in the Duchy of Württemberg sometime in the 16th century by visiting traders.
Originally restricted to the nobility as a unique delicacy, its allure led to it becoming a popular dish across Germany by the early 20th century.
Harvest workers flown in from Romania arrive at Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden airport on April 9th. Photo: DPA.
While it’s now available in almost every supermarket, most Germans choose to buy them close to their source, so to speak, from stalls dotted throughout towns and villages.
Today, Spargel farmers are highly respected members of their community, and almost every region has ‘Spargel Queen’ competitions – a very serious business indeed.
Spargel Queens, or ‘Spargelkönigin’ are expected to be both tireless advocates for both their region, and local Spargel producers. Local young women, who compete for the prestigious positions, undergo all sorts of competitions to assess their suitability before an eventual winner is crowned.
Much like many things in Germany, the Spargel season runs to a tight schedule. The season ends abruptly on the 24th of June, just as summer fruits are harvested.
Indeed, as an old folk proverb states: ‘When cherries are red, Spargel is dead’ (or Kirschen rot, Spargel tot). The stands disappear and the country prepares for the colder months, dreaming of the white spears of steamed goodness yet to come.
The good stuff. Photo: DPA
It speaks as a huge testament to the German love affair with Spargel, that as Europe puts up walls and barriers to prevent the spread of a deadly contagion, an exception is made for the country’s favourite vegetable.
Indeed, some might say it has almost become a symbol of Germany’s determination and hope for better days.