It’s a word that’s just fun to say.
It’s German for asparagus but after learning it in another language, my husband and I couldn’t stop saying it. It was Spargel this and Spargel (schpar-guhl) that. Walking to visit my Oma in the hospital, one of us would just blurt out “Spargel!”
A sing-songy Spargel would bounce off my aunt’s basement walls as I hiked up the stairs to the breakfast table in the morning.
Tying up our shoelaces: “Spargel!”
Pedalling our bikes through town: “Spargel!”
And of course, when we ate them, since they were in season in Germany during our visit, we treated my aunt and uncle to a chorus of Spargels.
As much as we love saying the word, we love eating them, too. My first asparagus-centric meal happened early in the trip when Steve and I ventured out for dinner to the Rose Garden, this idyllic 13-acre plot, smack in the middle of Zweibrucken. It boasts more than 60,000 rose bushes, countless other plants, an amphitheatre and a ginormous chess board that played host to a dismal match between me and Steve (dismal because I lost).
Tucked at the end of this bucolic interlude in the midst of the city is a restaurant where roses feature prominently in the dishes on the menu and, during our visit, so did asparagus.
Even white asparagus.
For most of my life, the albino asparagus kind of bothered me. Repulsed me, even. I remember when I was kid, my mom and dad gorged on jars of white asparagus that my mom happened upon while grocery shopping. I’ll never forget how excited she was by her discovery. Like she had won in the lottery. She paraded her haul proudly into the house for my dad’s benefit and he was equally ecstatic by her purchase. They had never seen white asparagus in Canada and eating it transported them temporarily back to their former homeland.
Being a vegetable-hating kid, I didn’t get it. White asparagus, in all their colourless glory, struck me as odd. They just had a bland, flavourless air to them.
But as I chowed down on green and white asparagus with morels in a saffron cream sauce a few weeks ago in Zweibrucken’s Rose Garden, I lamented the judgmental ways of my youth and all the goodness I had missed out on while growing up.
Just like their colour, the taste of white asparagus is unassuming. Deliciously mild, delicate and sweet — far less earthy and vegetal than their coloured counterparts.
I did my best to repent for my misspent youth of generic vegetable eating by devouring more Spargel — and only the white ones — many more times on my trip. My favourite meal amongst the many fine foods I fed myself was a Pfalzer specialty and regional fare at its finest: white asparagus with Hollandaise sauce and parsley potatoes. It came compliments of my aunt, who gets her white Spargel directly from a nearby farmer.
The pale spears get their lack of colour from farmers meticulously building up dirt around them as they grow. Keeping them in the dark prevents the production of chlorphyll, which is what gives them their typical green colour. Some growers let the tips peak through, giving them sun-kissed light purple tops.
I hovered over my aunt Sigrun as she worked — easy to do since she’s barely five feet tall — and offered a hand when I could. Mostly, though, I just wanted to watch and learn, absorb and eat.
Unlike the green guys, white asparagus need to be peeled, a task at which I didn’t do well. I missed a few strands on a spear that wound up on my plate, making an otherwise soft Spargel stringy but no less tasty.
Dressed with my aunt’s Hollandaise, which looked like cheese sauce thanks to the bright orange yolks of straight-from-the-farm eggs she used, this meal was a helping of heaven served on a plate. I could have drunk the sauce, shoved more spears down my throat.
But alas, I couldn’t because there were none left. Fortunately, she made another meal of them before I returned to Canada.
Good news is I can relive that memorable meal — and redeem my asparagus peeling abilities — because there are white asparagus growers here in Ontario and not too far from Niagara. Jansesen Produce and Specialties in Simcoe, Mazak Farms in St. Thomas and Cookstown Greens all offer them.
Meanwhile, I’m dreaming of a white asparagus (blanketed in Sigrun’s Hollandaise).
White asparagus with Hollandaise sauce
(My aunt used five egg yolks and substituted a tablespoon of lemon juice with dry white wine but unfortunately, I didn’t write down her recipe, so I’m using this from a cookbook of dishes from the same region. It’s called Pfalzer Kuche).
2 kg white asparagus
20 grams butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon starch
2 egg yolks
60 grams cold butter
Juice from half a lemon
Steam asparagus in a little water with 20 grams of butter, salt and sugar for about 20 minutes until al dente.
Combine the cornstarch with the egg yolks and whisk until foamy in a saucepan over low heat. Then bring to a boil and remove from heat.
Add cold butter, piece by piece stirring in the sauce, dissolving one piece before adding the next. Add lemon juice, salt and to taste. Take asparagus from the pot, drain and serve with Hollandaise sauce.
Serves 4. Ready in about 35 minutes.