I love the spring in Paris. It arrives much earlier than in Toronto so by mid-April I'm enjoying favas, peas, baby onions and new potatoes. I tell everyone that I come to Paris in the spring just so I can eat white asparagus. Well, I've just discovered that I may have to change my travel plans.
This year, with in days of touching down in the city of light, I sped off on a TGV to the Frankfurt suburbs. I remember from a previous trip to Berlin, in June, just how much the Germans like white asparagus. I now realise that they don't just like white asparagus, they are crazy about them. From mid-April to mid-June, the official asparagus season, white asparagus are everywhere; on every menu, in every market and vegetable store, and for sale at roadside stands. Everybody it seems is eating them.
I love white asparagus, they have a subtle bitterness that makes them much more complex in flavour than green ones. They are one of the vegetables that star in my new book Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes. In the book I explain how they are grown and harvested and why it makes them an expensive vegetable. I asked my friends to take me to the asparagus fields so I could see it all first hand. They took me to Schwetzinger, the capital of asparagus in this part of Germany. The main square is usually filled with farmers selling asparagus, but as this day there were only two stalls, that we later discovered were resellers. In the square is the bronze sculpture of a woman and her daughter selling asparagus pictured above. We wandered around the town and discovered an asparagus stall on a side street. We started chatting, they were selling asparagus from their farm. The older woman showed us the machine that cut and washed the newly harvested asparagus. The stalks are then grade by size, the fattest being the most expensive. She then proudly revealed that she was the grandmother of the "asparagus queen". Her granddaughter Katharina had won the title two years in a row! I have a signed photo to prove it. We asked where we could see asparagus being harvested and she directed us to her farm.
At the end of these sandy fields we found the workers. My friends explained that we had been sent by the owner and wanted to see how they harvested the asparagus. Their words were wasted, the workers were from Poland and spoke no German. However, they were very friendly and happy to show us how they picked the asparagus, they even let us try our hand.
Green and white asparagus are the same vegetable, white asparagus are blanched by burying the plant under a mound of sandy soil. White asparagus fields are defined by their mounds of sandy soil that are sometimes cover in plastic to protect the spears from the light. The workers prowl the fields scrutinizing the mounds, looking for any cracks in the soil. These indicate that a spear might be pushing through. Using their hands they carefully dig into the soil to expose the spear, making sure they don't damage any neighbouring ones. Using a metal tool with a wooden handle that resembles a chisel they cut the spear at the base. Then using a trowel they fill in the hole with the sandy soil. No high-tech equipment on this farm.
The asparagus are stacked in plastic boxes ready to be cut, washed, and graded. We bought a couple of kilos of the biggest, fattest ones, that were so fresh they squeaked when you rubbed them. The proud grandmother had told us she would not eat an asparagus that was more than 24 hours old. We ate ours that night with maltaise sauce, steamed new potatoes and lightly smoked ham, a perfect combination.
There are lots of ways to enjoy white asparagus, but perhaps the most unusual way I ate them on this trip was in an ice cream at Lohninger restaurant in Frankfurt. The dish was very pretty, the ice cream was served with a compote of rhubarb and raspberry garnished with a translucent slice of candied rhubarb.
And how did the ice cream taste? Exactly like white asparagus, but rich and creamy. It was delicious.