Germany's love of white asparagus
Nothing ignites German culinary passions like white asparagus. In the northwestern region of Münsterland, during the harvest months of April to June, those precious white spears really make their presence felt
I'm scouring the flat upper surface of the knee-high, grey-brown mound of soil for the tiny undulations that might indicate a spear of white asparagus trying to break through.
Next to me, Lukasz Dominikowski, armed with his asparagus cutter (a long, flat tool with a sharp, forked blade), has detected a ripple. He plunges two thickly-gloved fingers into the soil, pushes it away to expose a single, cream-coloured spear, then slides his asparagus cutter down alongside it, perfectly parallel, and breaks it away from its root. Picking up a flat trowel, he smoothes over evidence of his operation. It's all over in less than 30 seconds, and I'm left trying to work out how he knew anything was there.
It's hardly surprising Lukasz has an eye for spotting white asparagus: the 33-year-old has travelled to Hof Grothues-Potthoff, a farm estate with a bakery, farm shop and hotel, in Senden — 42 miles south west of Münster — for the past eight years, to help harvest and sort up to 100 tonnes of Germany's white gold. Every April, he leaves his wife and job in Poznań, Poland, to work 10 hours a day, six days a week, until the official end of the season on 24 June, the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist. It looks like backbreaking work, but Lukasz thoroughly enjoys it. "It's satisfying, and the money's much better than repairing computers back home," he says.
White asparagus season is celebrated with a passion in Germany, and I've come to the flat, castle-filled region of Münsterland, with its maritime climate and sandy soil primed for the spring vegetable's production, to find out why. Elmar Grothues, who with his siblings oversees a 14-generations-old family farm, takes me to a newly planted field. Pulling a bundle of roots from the soil — a cluster of earthy rats' tails attached to a feathery green shoot — he explains the labour-intensive white-asparagus-growing process. It requires precision planting and constant monitoring of the soil that's heaped over the spears to prevent them being exposed to sunlight: if its too hot, too cold, too wet, dry or hard, the growth of the spears is affected. It's hard work made easier through modern technology and the support of a collaborative local network: Elmar uses manure donated by a pig farm; their asparagus waste goes to a dairy farm as cow fodder.
We arrive at the farmyard just as Lukasz and his co-workers are hoisting crates containing the morning's harvest off their truck and into a barn. The crates are filled with cold water to keep the asparagus at peak freshness. The shiny steel sorting machine is a veritable homage to the German love of systems and procedure; each spear is sliced to a uniform length before being computer-analysed, classed and spat out into one of 20 water troughs for manual collection and storage. The straightest, smoothest, whitest spears with a tightly closed head command a far higher price than the wonky, broken or discoloured ones. I wonder if their appearance is a reflection of quality. "Not at all," Elmar admits, rather sheepishly, "It all tastes the same. We just like it looking nicer on the plate."
The day before, in the lively student city of Münster, I'd seen signs of the city's culinary history everywhere, from plaques among the cobblestones marking the old salt trading route, to white asparagus carved into the stone facade of a private mansion. Münster's old town, almost completely destroyed in the Second World War, was rebuilt in its pre-war style, and the buildings along the Prinzipalmarkt — tall, pale and narrow with acutely angled roofs — look not unlike a row of white asparagus tips themselves.
The city's weekly market takes place in a large, leafy square by the cathedral; a maze of trucks and stands shaded by colourful awnings. The fresh produce stands are currently dominated by punnets of bright red strawberries and stacks of bright white asparagus. The annual asparagus harvest is a source of great local pride, and I find only one vendor indifferent to it: "I grew up with two white asparagus addicts for parents," she says. "Back in the '50s we grew it ourselves, like most people, and we never went to market. I've eaten my fill, and it doesn't interest me any more."
Soups, spears & stews
Today, the market is still shunned by some locals — those who prefer to buy their white asparagus from source. Heading out at weekends into the countryside, often by bicycle — surrounded by a spectacularly flat landscape, it's obvious why Münster is Germany's cycling capital — they like to support local producers, and they want know where their food comes from. Having cottoned onto the idea that Münsterites like a day trip, many farms now open a restaurant in the harvest season, serving white asparagus dishes in the sunshine, right where it's grown.
It's a short walk from the marketplace to Altes Gasthaus Leve, a traditional German restaurant that's been in the same family for three generations. Joseph Horstmüller greets me at the end of the long, wooden bar, eyes twinkling, salt-and-pepper beard neatly groomed, and bowtie knotted meticulously beneath his chin. He has the manner of natural-born host, and the air of a man who likes the finer things in life. During the high season, he tells me, his restaurant serves up to 100kg of white asparagus a week.
Some of Joesph's customers have been eating at Leve for over 50 years, and it's clear that he and head chef Frank Lembeck, who's emerged from the kitchen in his chef's whites, know them well. "Out of habit, their main meal is lunch, perhaps white asparagus served the classic way, with ham and potatoes," Frank explains. "Or they might order chicken stew [made to Joseph's grandmother's recipe]. In the evening, they'll have bread and soup. The younger evening crowd are open to a more creative menu, but we know what our regulars want." I ask Frank if he'd put green asparagus on the menu. He shakes his head.
As is the case at Hof Grothues-Potthoff, nothing here goes to waste. Peelings are used to make a delicate, creamy soup; broken spears are added to stews. And like Elmar, Joseph fosters strong local relationships; he's been buying his asparagus from the same farm for over 20 years.
I sit down at a small wooden table, where waitress and student Paulina Brandt, dressed in a traditional black and white uniform, brings my plate of white asparagus with a beaming smile.
With a backdrop of wood-panelled walls and hand-painted tiles, a tall, flickering candle and a glass of honey-coloured Mosel Riesling, my lunch could be a Dutch Golden Age painting. The raft of white asparagus — straight and white and meticulously aligned — shares the plate with waxy, yellow new potatoes and a crumpled heap of wafer-thin, dark pink Westphalian ham (a regional delicacy made from acorn-fed, forest-dwelling pigs; their meat dry-cured and cold-smoked over beechwood).
This is the best of the best local produce, prepared and cooked very simply, and I suddenly feel terribly spoilt. Paulina puts down two stainless steel sauce boats next to my plate. One is filled with a bright yellow hollandaise so thick it wobbles, the other with a pool of glossy melted butter. I ask why she likes white asparagus, and she gives the same answer I keep receiving: "It's around for such a very short time and has such a fine taste, plus its full of vitamins, so it's really very healthy." I drown my white gold in butter.
Meeting the queen
Over the course of my three days here, I try white asparagus several ways. There's the soup, garnished with chives; and a fresh, vinegary salad with chopped egg, bacon, tomato and herbs. I eat it grilled, served on a charcoal-grey plate with tiny poached quails' eggs and dots of bright green moss mayonnaise. But it's the potatoes and ham that I keep thinking about: it's an old-fashioned dish, yet it doesn't feel outdated, and when I think of sweeping a forkful of potato, ham and white gold through melted golden butter, I don't want to have it any other way.
As I learn about the traditional regional cuisine here — cured meat and sausages, pumpernickel bread, stews that use up odds and ends — it becomes apparent there's a focus on simplicity, quality, and avoiding waste. Culinary traditions are respected for the hard work they represent, and they're being embraced by the younger generations, too. Down by Münster's harbour — once a bustling port now buzzing with cafes and bars — I visit the Hafenkäserei, an organic dairy producing creatively flavoured Gouda and red smear cheeses using four-generation-old processes. In the dairy's cafe, the cheeses are served with beers from one of Münster's flourishing craft breweries. Elsewhere, at the six tiny Tolkötter bakeries dotted around town, over 50 different types of bread are sold — a mix of traditional loaves made from old grains, innovative fruit loaves, and rye sourdough rolls.
On my final afternoon in Münsterland, I drive 10 miles east to meet the region's 'asparagus queen', Christine Hengemann, at her family farm, Spargelhof Hengemenn. I'm hoping she'll shed more light on Germany's passion for the white gold. I'm struck by just how relentlessly flat the landscape is. The fields — in turn, lush green, bright yellow, and brown and white (rows of polythene sheeting covering mounds of white asparagus) — are interrupted only by clusters of trees and huge, whirring wind turbines.
Twenty-one-year-old Christine is sitting outside the farmhouse in the shade of a 200-year-old tree when I arrive, looking regal in a burgundy dress, embroidered cream sash and glittering tiara — although she's eager to let me know she'd rather be wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Showing me round the small, tidy farm, Christine tells me the paid role involves promoting white asparagus at festivals and events all season on behalf of the regional growers' association.
We sit down at a table outside the farm shop in the late-afternoon sun, and Christine's mother Sabine appears with bowls of white asparagus soup. She's been running the farm for nearly 30 years. I ask her why the vegetable is so beloved in these parts. Wearing the sort of misty-eyed expression reserved for the very fondest of memories, she recalls her childhood: "White asparagus was a wonderful treat, and expensive, because of the hard work required to produce it. We'd have it as a special meal on Sundays, or to celebrate Mother's Day or Pentecost. It's what you go home for to have cooked by your mum."
I think about this as I travel the long, straight road back to Münster. Over the past three days, I've asked everyone I've met why white asparagus is so popular in Germany. Some said it's because the season is so short that they can't help but gorge themselves; others have expounded on its health benefits. Sabine's nostalgia, however, rings truer than these explanations, and Germany's passion for the white gold suddenly makes sense. Having learned what's important to many people here — a deep pride in their regional produce and respect for hard work; a love of good-quality ingredients prepared simply and without waste; and an appreciation for tradition — it seems that white asparagus represents all of this, a symbol of all that is Münsterland. Isn't it lucky, I think to myself, that it tastes so good.
Featured in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food.