Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Spargelzeitgeist: the German Penchant for Seasonal Food and Drink


The sun is shining in Berlin, winter jackets are being stowed away, city park lawns will soon be trampled into dirt, and all that means it's Spargelzeit in Germany! I can still remember my very first Spargelzeit as if it were yesterday. As Spring sprang in Freiburg im Breisgau, I heard whispers of the beloved Spargelzeit among the public, and soon I started spotting small stands throughout the city selling bundles of the thick, phallic white stalks stacked precariously high on foldable tables. Then, I noticed that every restaurant in town that wasn't hawking Döner was making appetizers, main courses, soups – and yes, desserts – using what appeared at the time to me as unripe or poor quality asparagus that had been allowed to grow for far too long. As far as I was concerned, asparagus was green, the best ones having a very tender quality and being only about a half centimeter thick. How much I had to learn about the world of asparagus. This is the obsession that is Spargelzeit in Germany (which could be translated as "asparagus season", but I think "asparagus-time" better encompasses the child-like excitement surrounding it), and it turns out it's actually just one of many seasonal food and drink "events" in Germany throughout the year.

Aside from being a bit put off by this different brand of asparagus that's exceedingly rare in the States, and reportedly had to be peeled before consuming, I was flummoxed at the sheer enthusiasm the Germans had for the vegetable. Many even religiously adjust their schedules and eating habits in the Spring to maximize Spargel consumption, and I'd bet big money that there's an annual hollandaise bubble around late April-early May, as it is the Spargel sauce of choice. Many lands tout their scenic wine or beer routes, but I reckon few can say that have a designated Spargel-route; Delbrück in northeastern Germany can make this proud claim, and they advertise their veg-specific cycle tour route on the Internets with the slogan "Pure cycle and asparagus pleasure." If I loved white Spargel as much as I love cycling, this would be a dream come true for my inner hedonist...but I don't, so it really isn't (to boot, there is nary a hill in the region, rendering the cycling equally marginal). Although my home province of Berlin/Brandenburg doesn't have its own Asparagus Pleasure Route as far as I'm aware, it does have its own epicenter of asparagus production located in and around the town of Beelitz, just southeast of city limits. In other words, if you're in Berlin and your asparagus didn't come from Beelitz, you've been had.
After 50 total hours of sunshine all Winter, Spargelzeit finally
shines its light on Berlin.

For those hard-to-convince readers needing more evidence of just how serious (or rather, giddy) the Germans are about the mighty asparagus stalk, the Spargelzeit phenomenon has also reached into the realm of television: one of the longest-running and most popular series in Germany was and is the crime show Tatort, and the 2010 episode called Spargelzeit (if you love Tatort and Spargel and have an hour to burn, you can watch the whole episode on YouTube) racked up the highest ratings for a Tatort show in 13 years (about 10.5 million viewers and a 29% share!), which puts it high in the running for the most watched show Germany-wide.

In search of some sort of concrete reasons behind this Teuton-Vegetable love affair, I found some information at germanfoods.org that points to the history of asparagus as a "luxury vegetable." Back in the day, it was almost exclusively available to the medieval rich and famous, and was therefore a rare treat for the humble plebs, who were drinking chunky-style beer and living in the otherwise-monotone culinary world north of the Alps. I think there could be something to this history playing a role on modern Spargel-eating habits, but I can think of two possible additional factors: first, Spargelzeit comes right at the glorious moment when the cold, grey winter of northern Germany gives way to blossoming flowers and trees and chirping birds. Asparagus, in other words, is just another happy indication that winter has come to a close. Second, and probably more importantly, I think Spargelzeit is really just the most popular example of the larger phenomenon of ingrained seasonal eating and drinking habits in Germany that emphasize the beginnings of a particular food or drink's harvesting season.

Erdbeerzeit is still the best Zeit of them all
as far as I'm concerned. (Photo: Hölker Verlag)
Case in point: On the heels of Spargelzeit comes Erdbeerzeit (Strawberry-time), and then as summer hits its peak (that is, if summer hits any kind of peak at all, which is far from a sure thing in Berlin lately), out come the Pfifferlinge for Pfifferlingszeit (chanterelle mushrooms), and of course any imaginable dish that involves mushroom cream sauce. In other words, lots of deliciousness. These seasonal events also stretch down to the southern reaches of the German-speaking world: When I first arrived in Styria, Austria, I quickly learned about Sturmzeit, which is centered around the grape harvest and the production of Sturm, a young and cloudy wine often drunk at the famous Heuriger (farm-to-table operations that serve meats, cheeses, wines, and vegetables that are all legally required to be produced on the premises). Along with producing prodigious hangovers, the drink represents a sort of a swan song for the friendly Fall weather in Austria. In the words of the Austrian, "Sturmzeit ist Herbstzeit!"

All of these Zeiten underline the much more prevalent tendency of Germans to eat seasonally. This tendency is part by choice, part out of habit, and part by general availability of produce. Any American who has lived in Germany or wandered into a German supermarket on vacation has probably noticed that the breadth of produce is far narrower than that found in its American counterparts (I've also read blogs complaining about the barren supermarkets of Germany). For many years in the U.S., I grew used to year-round strawberries, avocados, grapefruits and almost any other seasonal fare that was flown in from opposite hemispheres, so it took me a while to get used to the comparably sparse selection at the typical Rewe, Edeka and especially the increasingly numerous Bioläden (organic grocery stores). But when I got beyond this initial frustration, I realized that seasonal eating and the Germans' various food obsessions are actually one of my favorite aspects of German (and really, European) culture: it really is a wonderful way to enjoy the passing of the seasons and forces you to enjoy those foods even more when they're available and fresh. It also minimizes the shipping of food across hemispheres and oceans (see this article from the Local on this topic) or inefficient production in giant greenhouses. So enjoy your Spargel thoroughly (for now), and the strawberries will be here in no time flat.