Every spring, thousands of visitors descend on the southern Germany's Asparagus Triangle to celebrate this culinary treasure.
Every year on the first Saturday in May the sedate town of Schwetzingen, in the southwestern state of Baden-Wurttemberg, is overrun with people, bands and asparagus stalls.
This is the Spargelfest, or Asparagus Festival — a day of music, dancing and parades in honor of the 'Konigliche Gemuse', or Royal Vegetable. For this is no ordinary asparagus, but the highly prized white-alabaster-stalked-variety , so exclusive it was once eaten only by kings.
The Spargelfest marks the peak of the asparagus, or spargel season, which lasts from April to June. It is a period of frenzied activity during which around 70,000 tons of the delicacy are gorged, and restaurants offer a special Spargelkarte, or asparagus menu. Asparagus mania is concentrated around the two main growing regions, Baden-Wurttemberg and Lower Saxony, and many towns hold a festival. The largest takes place in the city of Bruchsal (Baden-Wurttemberg), but the most famous is the one in Schwetzingen, the self-proclaimed 'asparagus capital of the world'.
It was here that the white-asparagus craze started: the town was the summer residence of the 17th-century elector, Karl Theodor, reputedly the first person to grow the vegetable, in the light, sandy soils of his palace gardens. Today, white asparagus is available to everyone, and there is no better opportunity to enjoy it than at the Sparfelfest. Visit the stalls, take part in the grand peel-off, where you can test your asparagus-peeling skills, and watch the festival's king and queen being crowned with asparagus spears.
When to go: The first Saturday in May for the Schwetzingen festival; the third Saturday in May for Bruchsal. Check dates for festivals in other places.
Planning: Schwetzingen is in the Asparagus Triangle, which lies between Heidelberg and Mannheim, and there are plenty of 'asparagus routes' in the area. Allow a full day at the Spargelfest, especially if you are going to Schwetzingen, as the festival is held outside the town's baroque palace, which is also well worth a visit.
Websites: wwwcometogermany.com, www.germany-tourism.com
Softer and sweeter than the green version, white asparagus is grown in sandy soil and, unlike its green counterpart, is protected from direct exposure to the sun. This gives the plant its characteristic milky white color.
When choosing white asparagus, make sure the stalks are plump, as these are the sweetest and most tender of all. The stalks should also, ideally be, pure white from base to tip. Any purple coloring at the tips indicates exposure to the sun and a loss of flavor.
To cook it, tie peeled asparagus in a bundle and stand it upright in a deep pot, in salted boiling water that comes about three-quarters of the way up the stalks, and boil for 10 – 20 minutes. Try it in cream of asparagus soup, with hollandaise sauce, or, best of all, with melted butter or an oil and vinegar dressing