Asparagus! Why it's Germany's favourite vegetable and how to cook it

The tastiest spear you'll gnaw on this Spring
The tastiest spear you'll gnaw on this Spring Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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From its qualities as an aphrodisiac to oral sex refusals - asparagus season is about to take all of Europe by storm.

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Springtime is round the corner, and that means one thing for lovers of seasonal produce: it's asparagus season. 

You may be able to find asparagus throughout the year, but the stalked vegetable has a peak when it’s particularly delicious.

Asparagus is generally bought in three varieties: green, which is most popular in the UK and the US; white, which is preferred by Germans; and Italian-developed purple.

If you go into a shop in the Autumn in Europe to buy some green asparagus, you’re most likely picking up South American asparagus. The equatorial climate makes for good growing conditions for the vegetable all year round.

But true asparagus lovers know the way to get the best of those green tips is by waiting for the right season to come in Europe.

When asparagus is in season, it grows at an incredible rate. Farmers have seen the vegetable grow up to 10cm a day when it’s in season. Cut a spear down in the morning and you’re likely to see a new asparagus spear peaking through in the afternoon.

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Look at them stalks go!Canva

Sein und Spargelzeit! - Germany’s love affair with asparagus

White asparagus season is a big deal in Germany. We’re talking almost to the level of religious cult. The white varieties of asparagus are essentially the same as the green ones, except they’re grown underground.

German farmers will heap a load of dirt over the asparagus plants and then cover that dirt with black plastic to stop any light reaching it. The lack of sunlight inhibits the plant’s chlorophyll production and creates the albino variety.

Asparagus is “spargel” in German and the season is called “Spargelzeit”. White asparagus season in Germany is typically from around mid-April through to 24 June when the country celebrates the nativity of St. John the Baptist.

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A bundle of white asparagusCanva

Germans take white asparagus seriously. The country consumes more than 70,000 tons of it annually and the rural region from Baden-Württemberg to Brandenburg where the plant is cultivated becomes a pilgrimage trail for asparagus aficionados.

Asparagus is considered an aphrodisiac, thanks to its high-level of Vitamin-E which increases blood and oxygen flow to the genitals, and potassium which can increase people’s libido. However, for some people who chow down on a big bowl of spears may find their partners less than willing.

That’s because asparagus has a famously potent effect on people’s pee. When our bodies break down asparagusic acid it creates a sulphurous byproduct that smells like rotten-eggs in your pee. Fortunately, only around 40% of people have to endure this smell as there’s a specific asparagus gene that lets you in on the pungent odour.

Nevertheless, for the 40% of people who do smell the rotten-egg stench, asparagus season can be a bit of a turn off. So much so that in Germany, the white asparagus season is often referred to as not the time for oral-sex. That’s “anti-Schlag-job” season for anyone headed over there in the coming months.

Britain’s short season and Italy’s special variety

Britain is probably the nation with the second biggest number of fans for these vegetables. UK chefs love putting asparagus on their seasonal menus. But they have to act fast. The green asparagus season is even shorter in the UK than it is in Germany.

In Britain, the asparagus season runs from around May through to summer solstice on 21 June. Asparagus needs temperatures of 9 °C to bloom, and the warm weather takes a little more time to dissipate in Britain than continental Europe. I couldn’t find a source on why German asparagus seems to wait around three days longer for St. John the Baptist day before going out of season. German asparagus must just owe St. John the Baptist some kind of favour.

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Asparagus season is in full swingCanva

While over in Italy, they’ve invented their own variety of the spears entirely. On the gulf of Genoa, near the city of Albenga, Italian farmers have cultivated an asparagus variety that’s higher in sugar and lower in fibre. Its strong purple colour covers a green interior and it can provide nuttier flavours in an asparagus dish.

The key to picking your asparagus right in shops is simple and works for all three colour types. Look for firm spears without mushy tips. You’ll want to cut the hard fibrous ends off before cooking, and many pro chefs insist on snapping the ends off. Once you’ve brought them home from the shop, store upright with the ends in a bit of water to keep your spears fresh and rigid.

How to cook your asparagus

Whichever kind of asparagus you do pick up this asparagus season, the next question you’ll ask yourself upon returning home is how to cook the damn things.

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Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef so I’m not going to give you any precise measurements in the following recipes. Take my vague instructions and experiment. I’m just a culture journalist, it’s my job to tease and inform your palette, not develop it.

Blanched

A typical German way to have white asparagus is blanched with hollandaise sauce. Bring a pot of water to boil that’s well seasoned. If you have a light vegetable stock, even better. Pop the asparagus in and let it cook for about four minutes.

The more complex part of this dish is the hollandaise. If you’ve not made this unctuous eggy sauce before, you may be surprised it looks a lot harder than it is. Over a simmering pan of water, place a heat proof bowl. In that bowl, whisk together some egg yolks and a bit of lemon juice before slowly adding a good glug of melted butter. You’ll know you’ve done it right when the ingredients come together to make a luscious oozing sauce. Add a splash of lemon juice and season to taste, then pour over your asparagus. Lecker!

Fried

You can do all the rest of the methods on their own, but a top tip is to blanch the asparagus for a couple of minutes and then shock in an ice bath before any of the following styles. This will ensure the asparagus keeps its bright colour throughout the cooking processes.

To fry, or sautéed asparagus, all you need is a frying pan and a small sliver of oil. Let the spears sit in the pan and occasionally turn. They’ll get some wonderful crispy bits and develop a heap of flavour. UK celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay likes to toast his asparagus in the pan for a bit before adding any oil to get an even better char.

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Celebrating asparagus season in styleCanva

Baked

If you like the char of sautéed foods but hate having to look at it while it cooks, the oven is for you. Whack your oven on the setting you use to cook everything (don’t try and pretend you ever actually read which number a recipe asks).

Coat those green or white or purple stems in a bit of oil and salt and put them into the oven. On a pan, obviously. Don’t make me spell every detail of this out, you’re not an idiot. If you really want to take your oven asparagus to the next level though, there’s a school of thought that wrapping the spears in bacon is a universally good idea. That school of thought isn’t Islam or Judaism, naturally.

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