The first whiff of anticipation comes in early April when you notice the odd crate in the supermarket, labelled “from Spain” and extortionately priced. You keep your eye on the incrementally falling price over the following fortnight. And when it hits seven euros a kilo and the label changes to “from Germany”, your mouth begins to water. Then the man with the muddy apron sets up his simple stall in the street, red crates overflowing with carefully aligned knobbly white sticks, sorted by thickness. Only at this point do the restaurants follow suit and proudly announce their new menus on pavement blackboards. This is when you know Spargelzeit, “Asparagus season”, has truly arrived.
There is possibly something a little ritualistic in the German attitude towards white asparagus. One of the few vegetables to which seasonal scarcity still applies and, to my knowledge, not so widely eaten outside of Germany (in Britain we always eat green), here it is considered a rare delicacy and an annual cause for occasion. Almost all restaurants (even the local Italian) bow to the traditions of this unusual vegetable, incorporating into their Spring menus with strict adherence the prescribed dishes: asparagus with potatoes and hollandaise sauce (or for simpler palates, melted butter); asparagus with potatoes, hollandaise and scrambled eggs; for carnivores, asparagus with potatoes, hollandaise and slices of cold ham, and finally a gorgeously creamy asparagus soup.
The season is a sociable one. Though expensive and possibly the most labour intensive vegetable I have ever met (bar celeriac perhaps) – with white asparagus you have to spend hours carefully peeling off just enough of the outer skin to leave it tender and not stringy when boiled – friends invite each other round to feast on what they see as sticks of pure joy. Families and groups arrange trips to Spargelhöfe, “asparagus farms”, dotted around the countryside. At these wonderful sites, you can first stuff yourself silly and then recover your appetite, lounging on benches in the sunshine while your children tear around on adventurous playgrounds and carousels, just in time to fit in a homemade ice cream before driving back into town.
But for all this glory, asparagus too has its dark, globalised underbelly. A sensitive plant, it is said to be backbreaking to harvest. Across Germany, mostly migrant workers spend hours crouching in fields plucking off the precious stems with their hands. They are often from Eastern Europe, these workers, as those picking green asparagus in Britain are too, and work in vulnerable circumstances, living off low wages, on nearby caravan sites, sending much of what they earn back home. Asparagus is neither cheap nor easy to come by, but migrant workers mostly are.
Its locality and seasonality remain a saving grace, and, though, if I am completely honest, my British palate still prefers the slender green shoots you can always find in Marks & Spencer’s, I find it hard not to indulge in this yearly ritual. But now, stuffed with asparagus and regretting slightly those additional hollandaise-induced pounds, I eagerly await the arrival of the local strawberry stall instead. Erdbeerzeit is coming.