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Asparagus - The Royal Vegetable

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“The Germans are crazy about asparagus,
which shows their good sense.”

~ Jane Grigson, Book of European Cookery

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Spring Flowers, Daffodils, Early Spring, Massachusetts
Spring Flowers, Daffodils,
Early Spring, Massachusetts
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Asparagus Pickers, 13th Century
Asparagus Pickers,
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From the Garden II
From the Garden II
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Asparagus Officinalis French : Asperge
Asparagus Officinalis
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Asparagus Stalk, Asparagus Officinalis
Asparagus Stalk, Asparagus Officinalis
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Elizabeth Espin
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Pile of White Asparagus, Clos Des Iles, Le Brusc, Cote d'Azur, Var, France
Pile of White Asparagus, Clos
des Iles, Le Brusc, Cote d'Azur,
Var, France
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Karlsson, Per
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A Bunch of Asparagus, 1880, Formerly in the Collection of Painter Max Liebermann
A Bunch of Asparagus, 1880,
Formerly in the Collection of Painter Max Liebermann
Giclee Print

Manet, Édouard
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La Belle Cuisine


Asparagus - The Royal Vegetable
by Michele Gerhard, Bad Homburg, Germany 1995

Just imagine that we are now in the midst of the dead of winter. The sky is drab and gloomy, cheerless, like a huge gray umbrella which has begun to leak. The festive atmosphere of Christmas has passed, the gaiety of the tiny, twinkling lights has dimmed, the candles have been snuffed. The revelry of welcoming the New Year has been replaced by the sobriety of cold, harsh reality: bills to be paid, snow to be shoveled, blizzards and ice storms to be braved. Winter, without the frills.

I haven’t seen the sky for at least ten days now. Actually, I can’t remember the last sunny day we had. At the moment, no snow, just drab, uninviting slush. The harmonious spirit of the Holiday Season has been superseded by
a humorless animosity. My depression deepens like a sinking tomb. The
sky outside my window at 4:30 p.m. is as dark as the devil’s soul.

Only one thing will brighten this despondency, lighten this lingering sense
of melancholy. I must constantly remind myself that spring will surely
come if only I persevere. My mind is filled with fantasies about the very
first signs that are so eagerly anticipated by everyone around me at this
time of year, the only antidote when we feel we are being engulfed by
the bleakness of winter. I imagine the sight of the first tiny purple crocus
and the smile it’s sure to bring. This will be followed by primroses and a profusion of pansies. And then, one glorious morning, I will awaken to
find that sunlight is streaming through my bedroom window. I’ll jump
out of bed, look out, and be greeted by the most cheerful sight in all
the world to me - dazzling yellow daffodils in full bloom. Spring!

And that leads, of course, to visions of fresh, creamy white asparagus.
Soon it will be Spargelzeit - asparagus season! Short, to be sure, but this
very brevity enhances the anticipation of its arrival.

For me, as well as for at least several million Germans, nothing heralds
the fact that spring has, indeed, arrived quite as dramatically or delicious-
ly as fresh asparagus. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Germany has
a monopoly on asparagus. However, there is a certain asparagus mania
that runs rampant in Germany from late April until June 24th the feast of
St. John the Baptist, (traditionally the end of the season) that is totally un- equaled in my experience. Actually, the asparagus itself is unequaled in
my experience. No wonder it was so eagerly devoured by Julius Caesar
and adored by Mme de Pompadour!

The history of asparagus can be traced back to the days of the Roman Empire. The oldest existing description was written by Marcus Porcius
Cato, Rome’s first agricultural writer. During the years 175 - 150 B.C.
he devoted his writings primarily to the subject of asparagus. Apparently
this "königliche Gemüse", or "royal vegetable", as the Germans fondly
refer to the expensive delicacy, was unknown to the ancient Egyptians
and Chinese. If they were familiar with it, they have left no written evi-
dence to that effect. Historically speaking, we lose track of the cultiva-
tion of asparagus until around 1100 A.D. when it is referred to not as
a delicacy, but as a medicinal herb. It appears that its importance as a
culinary bonne bouche was temporarily sidetracked, for during the
period from circa 1100 A.D. until the mid-16th century, asparagus
was cultivated only in convent or curative herb gardens.

The first documented reference to asparagus cultivation in Germany
dates from 1565. The "Catalogue of Herbs and Trees in the Princely
Pleasure Garden" in Stuttgart refers to this "delightful fare for lovers
of food". It seems that Duke Christoph von Württemberg became aware
that asparagus was relished as an exceptionally savory tidbit in many of
Europe’s most discriminating courts, and thus ordered it to be planted
in his garden. It remained a luxury available only to the nobility until the
mid-19th century. I for one am most grateful that the "royal vegetable",
although still considered somewhat expensive, is now widely available
to the common folk.

My first encounter with asparagus at age 3 was nothing if not traumatic!
I am amazed that I can even tolerate the taste now. I distinctly remember
refusing to eat it, to the total dismay of my mother, one of the world’s
foremost asparagus fanatics. Not only did she demand that I eat it, but
insisted that I chew each bite 30 times before swallowing! I reluctantly
submitted to her will under threat of dire punishment. Apparently what
they say about the seductive powers of this legendary vegetable is true,
for today I find it quite irresistible. How delightfully would I chew every
morsel until it literally melts in my mouth.

As much as I love asparagus, I must admit it came as a shock to me to
find asparagus season such a MAJOR EVENT in Germany. Restaurants supplement their regular menu with a special asparagus menu, and I am
told there are at least 40 different ways to serve it. There are asparagus
peeling contests and asparagus festivals. (This is so you can eat asparagus
in addition to "a brat and a beer, bitte").And, of course, there must be an
asparagus queen.

For the Trivia fans among you, Helmut Zipner, affectionately know in
Germany as the "Spargel-Tarzan" is listed in the "Guinness Book of
Records" as peeling a ton of asparagus in 16 hours.) There are special
seminars and organized tours of asparagus farms and asparagus cooking
classes. With no end in sight, the asparagus tourism business is booming,
as fans gladly travel hundreds of kilometers to feast on freshly harvested, lovingly prepared culinary creations.

Two delightful German cities - Schrobenhausen in Upper Bavaria and
Schwetzingen in the nearby state of Baden-Württemberg - have long
been renowned for their asparagus expertise. Abensberg, not far from
Schrobenhausen, is also making quite a name for itself. As you might
expect, competition between the areas is fierce, and I much prefer not
to get caught in the middle of this heated controversy!

Schrobenhausen, where asparagus has been cultivated since 1912, is an idyllic, picturesque town with a flourishing art colony, quite worthy in its
own right of a visit. Like so many other municipalities in Germany, from
large cities like Munich to enchanting small villages like Michelstadt, it is
rich in history and fascinating in its allure. Schrobenhausen is proud to
have been the home of Franz von Lenbach, the most prominent German
portrait painter of the 19th century, who painted Pope Leo XIII and Otto
von Bismarck in addition to many other celebrities of the period. The art
gallery in his birth house displays many of his famous and costly paintings.
Schrobenhausen’s primary claim to fame is the one and only European Asparagus Museum. In addition to providing information on the history
and cultivation of asparagus, the museum displays an amazingly diverse
collection of porcelain, silver, serving utensils, paintings (including an
Andy Warhol) and recipes.

Schwetzingen was once the summer residence of Pfälzer Kurfürsten, or electorate princes. The majestic baroque palace and adjoining gardens are definitely worth a visit, even if you are not lured to the area by your lust
for fresh asparagus. The palace gardens are considered to be Germany’s
largest and most beautiful from the baroque and rococo period. In 1763,
the 7-year-old Mozart was presented in concert to the noble society of Schwetzingen in the palace’s Rococo Theater. In honor of that visit, the
city presents an annual Mozart Festival in September and October, with
most concerts being presented in that very same Rococo Theater.

Schwetzingen is the self-proclaimed "most famous asparagus city in the
world". The highlight of its annual asparagus festival is the naming of the
"king" or "queen" - whoever weighs in the heaviest asparagus stalk. The
city takes great pride in its unique monument to Spargelfrauen, the dili-
gent women who not only toil in the fields, but also take the asparagus
to market. The bronze memorial, shaded by lovely chestnut trees, is
situated on the exact location of the asparagus market of a century ago.

And, believe it or not, Master Confectioner Utz of Schwetzingen found
the local asparagus so enchanting that he was inspired to create a delec-
table filled-chocolate version of asparagus tips, a local specialty. He even
offers a choice of white (asparagus-colored) or milk chocolate. No, the
chocolate is not filled with asparagus, nor is the asparagus filled with
chocolate. The chocolate is filled with Buttertrüffel and Himbeergeist (raspberry brandy) - it just LOOKS like asparagus. As a matter of fact,
the special asparagus-tip form used to create these luscious chocolates
was designed by Utz and is patented.

It appears that a large segment of the German population eats asparagus
at least once a day during the entire season. No doubt for many (myself
included) it would be three times a day if it weren’t for the fact that the
going price ranges from $3.00 - $10.00 per pound (no doubt much higher
now than in 1995 when this was written), depending on the quality (class)
of the asparagus, the abundance of the current crop, and the region in
which it is grown. Unless you are fortunate enough to have experienced
this phenomenon, you probably doubt my word and are asking yourself
what could possibly be so extraordinary. After all, asparagus is asparagus,
right? What’s all the fuss about?

Let’s take just a moment to consider this situation. If you’ll pardon the generalization, Germans are renowned for their practicality. They are generally considered to be orderly, efficient, pragmatic and sensible.
They are generally known as reasonable people. Agreed? Ja wohl! It
stands to reason, then, if they are downright fanatical about something
like fresh asparagus, there must be a good explanation. Absolutely. I will
try my best to do it justice, but it’s one of those things that really should
be experienced to be appreciated. If fate smiles upon you and you live
in an area where the delectable white asparagus preferred in Germany -
or even the ivory, lavender-tipped variety - is available freshly picked,
you will savor a tender delicacy unique in all the world.

My favorite description of a stupendous asparagus experience was written
by Lillian Langseth-Christensen, a great lady, talented cook and author no doubt familiar to many of you, as she was Gourmet’s longest continuous contributor, from 1957 to 1992. In her marvelous article entitled "The
Grand Asparagus Tour", which appeared in the April 1988 issue of
Gourmet, she writes:
"Thereupon [after eating a first course of asparagus with marinated
salmon and realizing that she was in the presence of a very talented
chef and asparagus specialist] the entire picture changed:  Birds
began to sing in the blooming chestnut trees before the door, the
sun shone warmly, and, in rereading the asparagus menu, we
knew that there would be blissful days ahead."

Should you be fortunate enough to be able to partake of  this delicacy on
the same day it is picked, properly (simply) prepared, you’ll surely under- stand my challenge in presenting an adequate description, worthy of this
exquisite vegetable’s many virtues. I’ve always believed vegetables, plants, flowers and the like to have personalities. Asparagus strikes me first and
foremost as having a certain elusive, enigmatic quality. No doubt that
is part of its allure. It has a dainty air about it, a fragile elegance and a
subtlety of flavor that quite understandably generates reverence among
its devotees.

Everyone seems to have a personal favorite where asparagus preparation
is concerned, but it would be virtually unheard of to see a Spargelzeit
menu which did not include some variation on the theme of asparagus
and ham, usually with sauce Hollandaise, accompanied by boiled new
potatoes. Salmon is also a popular accompaniment. The menu of the
café on the grounds of the magnificent baroque palace in Schwetzingen
is relatively typical of the special asparagus menus offered during the
season. It includes asparagus Hollandaise with ham, Wiener schnitzel,
or crepes, as well as asparagus salad and cream of asparagus soup. In
general, you can expect to pay around $5.00 for a bowl of really excel-
lent soup and from $20-$35 for an entree of a full order of asparagus
accompanied by meat such as schnitzel or pork loin. [Those were the
days!] Prices are higher, of course, in the finer restaurants where the
creativity of fine chefs knows no bounds.

Spargel purists insist that it is a crime to smother the delicate flavor of
freshly harvested boiled or steamed asparagus with anything more than
a touch of unsalted butter and possibly a squeeze of lemon juice. Well, breadcrumbs browned in butter, if you must. Actually, I quite agree.
Especially if you can afford the very best Klasse I Spargel. Chef Hans
Haas of Tantris in Munich (two Michelin stars) adds croutons, scallions, finely diced boiled ham and hard-boiled eggs to the butter topping.

Asparagus and eggs have always been a gratifying combination, it seems.
One of my favorites is a simple, elegant salad composed of steamed fresh asparagus, boiled eggs and a Sherry vinaigrette. To serve four amply, use
2 pounds of asparagus and two hard-boiled eggs, diced. The vinaigrette
consists of olive and walnut oil in a 1 to 1 ratio, and about one-third the
amount of Sherry vinegar, depending on its potency, and salt and pepper
to taste. Stir the eggs into the vinaigrette just before serving, top the
asparagus with it and sprinkle with minced fresh parsley.

My introduction to German Spargel was a dish referred to by my mother-
in-law-to-be simply as Spargelgemüse. She always insisted that the purist
method is her favorite, but somewhat cost-prohibitive since she was cooking
for a household of twelve! I have noticed through the years that her method
is very typical, in addition to being absolutely delicious:
 First, the asparagus is trimmed (snap off tough ends - do not cut with a knife), washed, and the tough skin pared away. Cut the spears into bite-
size pieces; boil in lightly salted water to cover for about 5 or 6 minutes. ("Trick 17", says my mother-in-law, is to add a pinch of sugar and some fresh lemon juice to the cooking water. She adds that every good German housewife knows this.) Make a white sauce using butter, flour, asparagus cooking liquid and milk, and flavor with freshly grated nutmeg (but not too much!) Depending on her mood and who’s expected for dinner, she might "refine" the sauce with cream and egg yolk, and possibly a little white wine. The perfect accompaniment: boiled new potatoes, of course, purchased
very fresh at the market where the potato farmer has known for years
just exactly what variety of potato she prefers and what size to offer her
if he doesn’t want to get an earful. Even if meat is served with the meal,
the main dish is the Spargelgemüse, and there are NEVER any leftovers,
no matter how many pounds of asparagus she cooks!


Naturally, it’s best to buy fresh asparagus directly from the farmer, or in a farmer’s market on the day it’s picked, if possible. If this is not possible in your area, you can tell a lot about the freshness of the vegetable by paying close attention to the cut end: if it has started to turn brown and looks even
somewhat shriveled, it has passed its peak. Also, beware of asparagus with
small areas of discoloration, as this is an indication that it may have been
kept in water too long. If that’s the case, it will have lost a good deal of its
delicate flavor. Keep the asparagus refrigerated, wrapped in a damp cloth,
such as a kitchen towel, until you are ready to prepare it, ideally the same day it is purchased.

Asparagus and Baby Leeks
Asparagus Clafoutis (Daniel Boulud)
Asparagus with Dill Cream and
Smoked Salmon

Asparagus and Ham Salad with
Herb Vinaigrette

Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce
Asparagus Salad with Eggs, Tomatoes
and Avocado

Asparagus Salad with Pineapple
Asparagus with Tarragon Sauce
Asparagus Three Ways (Alain Ducasse)
Kaiserspargel, Mimi Sheraton’s
Ragout of Lobster and Green Asparagus
Sesame-Roasted Asparagus
(Cream of Asparagus Soup)

A Variety of Sauces
Basil Sauce
Herb Cream
Wild Mushroom Sauce
Orange Sauce with Rosemary
Curry Yogurt Sauce
Warm Asparagus Salad with Crawfish
(Johann Lafer)

Baden Asparagus Route

European Asparagus Museum

Schwetzingen Palace and Gardens


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