The German obsession with Spargel
Like clockwork, Spargel (white asparagus) bursts onto the culinary scene across Germany every spring. Beginning in mid-April, restaurants everywhere begin promoting their Spargel dishes and astounding lines begin to form wherever Spargel is being sold – at curbside kiosks, at supermarkets, and, of course, at the weekly farmer’s market. Like any love affair, Germans simply cannot get enough of it. Just about everywhere fresh produce is sold, you’ll see shoppers greedily heaping kilos of it into their shopping carts before triumphantly heading home with their newly acquired treasure trove of ‘white gold’. Even McDonald’s has gotten on board recently with the addition of their latest sandwich, the Big Spargel Hollandaise, on menus across Germany.
If you’ve ever been in Germany during Spargelzeit (asparagus season), you’ll already know that Germans take their asparagus very seriously. Across the country, you’ll find an immense showing of Spargel pride. There are Spargel Queens, Spargel museums, Spargel festivals, and even entire Spargel trails promoted by local communities and tourist boards. There are opportunities across the country to get your hands on the beloved vegetable. And, according to Spargel experts, you might want to. Similar to wine grapes, asparagus is affected by the soil it grows in and often reflects the nuances of a region’s terroir. This means that in every region you visit the flavor profiles of asparagus will be slightly different, so it might very well be worth setting out on a national tour.
By the time that Spargel season comes to an end, exactly on the 24th of June, Germans eat their way through an impressive 138,000+ tons of asparagus. In case you’re wondering, that’s equivalent to 70,000 cars! This outrageous level of consumption means that for seven or eight weeks of the year, you’ll find Spargel served up hundreds of ways at restaurants across the country. Most traditionally, you’ll find it served up with melted butter (with or without bread crumbs) or a rich and creamy Hollandaise sauce, and can come with any number of sides — ranging from boiled new potatoes, thin slices of ham, schnitzel or smoked salmon. You’ll also find Spargel in soups, tartes, omelettes, quiches, and other dishes. And, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can even try it as a schnapps.
The history of Spargel in Germany (& Europe)
The history of asparagus— or, at least, the green version — dates back over 2000 years. Roman emperors were allegedly crazy about it, and went to great lengths to secure the highest quality stalks for their empire as they believed it to be both a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. The lush, green farmland in the Rhineland was perfect for cultivating this sought-after vegetable, so it was likely that this part of Germany helped supply the demand in Rome during the empire’s reign.
When the Roman empire crumbled, however, so too did the asparagus industry. For awhile, the fields remained abandoned and asparagus was all-but-forgotten. But, by the 16th century monks returned to harvesting the spears, mainly for medicinal purposes. It was thought that Spargel could help cure spleen, liver, and stomach pain. Others cited it as a remedy for rheumatic complaints. One doctor, Dr. Jakobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus suggested mixing asparagus and pepper with some fine wine to “bring life to the marriage bed.” In time, asparagus became increasingly popular — primarily among the wealthy. France’s King Louis XIV even grew it in hothouses so he could enjoy it year-round. It also became a staple in monasteries and courtly gardens across France and Germany.
White asparagus, however, has a seemingly shorter history. The technique of molding earth around asparagus spears as they push up out of the ground, thus keeping them sheltered from chlorophyll-producing sunlight (which would turn them green), was apparently developed in France in the mid-1600s, and the practice soon spread to Germany and other parts of Europe. Truth be told, little is known about how the shift from green to white took place or how and when white Spargel became so popular across Germany. However, urban legend has it that this shift occurred completely by accident. Allegedly, at some point, in some small town in Germany, a severe hailstorm destroyed an asparagus crop and all the residents were forced to eat the part of the vegetable that was growing underground. To their surprise, they found it sweeter and more tender, so they started piling soil around the spears as they shot up out of the ground to continue to enjoy their discovery.
Today, most Germans prefer to eat white asparagus and it produced the same way it has been for centuries. The white stalks grow under long mounds of heaped soil, and unlike green asparagus, they need to be harvested before they reach the sunlight. It is labour-intensive work, as every single stalk is harvested by hand, which is why Spargel remains can often be quite expensive. Sometimes you’ll see it priced for as much as 20 euros per kilo!
Spargel, in many regions of Germany, has become designated as protected product, receiving a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). Most recently, Beelitz, the area where most of the asparagus sold in the German capital comes from, received this designation. Therefore, like regional German beer, gingerbread, sausages, and ham, Beelitzer asparagus can now proudly bear the European Union’s seal of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).
Visiting Beelitz: The Spargelstadt of Berlin-Brandenburg
During Spargelzeit, you’ll find restaurants across the country offering up the seasonal delicacy. However, if you’re based in Berlin, a quick trip (about 50km) to the nearby town of Beelitz will certainly help you better understand the Germans Spargel love affair. The town, self-proclaimed as one of Germany’s so-called Spargelstadt (asparagus city), attracts around 2,000 curious visitors each year. There, you can discover where and how asparagus is grown, learn more about the culture around the vegetable, and, most importantly, indulge yourself in traditional spargel-centric meals. It’s definitely the best place for a thorough induction to Germany’s cult-like obsession with asparagus.
You can get start your trip to Beelitz by expanding your Spargel knowledge at the Beelitzer Spargel Museum, where you’ll learn dozens of facts about these pale, porcelain-coloured spears. Afterwards, a stop at any one of the local farms that welcome visitors will give you the opportunity to enjoy a plate (or maybe even two) full of Spargel, directly from the farm.
The 3 Best Spargelhöfe in Beelitz
- Spargelhof- und Erlebnishof Klaistow – Glindower Str. 28, Beelitz
At Spargelhof Klaistow, you’ll find fun for the whole family. On top of the restaurant and market shop, there’s a playground, a petting zoo, and a wild game enclosure where you can get up close and personal with several types of deer who roam the property. Additionally, you can explore ~5 km of hiking trails while stopping to learn about the flora and fauna of the region, as well as engaging with experiential art. You can even arrange your own forest tour (45-90 minutes in length) where you can find out more about who lives in the forest, what they eat, and even how squirrels communicate.
- Jakobs-Hof Beelitz – Kähnsdorfer Weg 15, 14547 Beelitz
At this stop, you can take a Kremser ride through winding forest paths, stroll through the richly filled country store, and of course fill up on your share of asparagus. In addition to the lovingly furnished “Jakobs-Stuben” restaurant with a fireplace room, there is a large courtyard garden, where delicious dishes are served on warmer days when the sun is shining. The menu is all about the asparagus, which of course comes from our own production.
- Spargelhof Jürgen Falkenthal – Keitz 31, 14547 Beelitz
A little more intimate than the other two on the list, Spargelhof Jürgen Falkenthal is a smaller farm without some of the bells and whistles that the others on the list offer. It’s run by the Falkenthal family and in their well-tended yard with its lovingly renovated barn, you’ll immediately feel welcome to enjoy a plate of Spargel and a beer. If you’re really interested in learning a bit more about Germany’s Spargel phenomenon, on request, the Falkenthals are happy to give a short tour of the farm and tell you more about their passion for asparagus.
There are, of course, many other farms or Spargelhofe where you can satisfy your asparagus craving. For a complete list of places to visit along the Spargelstrasse in and around Beelitz, please click here.