Margaret, the author of one of my favorite blogs, Life in Laroque, had a question in the comments to my post below: "Now what I need to know is.... how do the Germans like their asparagus? White, huge, phallic (and in my opinion a bit soapy and tasteless) like the French, or thin, green and full of flavour like the English? Or somewhere in between?"
As you can see from the picture below that was taken at the Kleinmarkthalle, both types of asparagus are available here.
Asparagus at the Kleinmarkthalle
As you probably also can tell from the picture, the white asparagus is more prevalent here. In the US, I don't recall ever seeing white asparagus while growing up. Perhaps it now is available. The reason the asparagus is white is because it grows in mounds of dirt and, ideally, never sees the light of day until harvested. May is the best month for asparagus in Germany, and we only eat it seasonally. If your white asparagus has a purple tip, this means that it was allowed to grow above the top of the mound and was exposed to daylight. I admit that white asparagus was an acquired taste. After having had a few pleasant meals with white asparagus, a few years ago I decided to try out different qualities to see whether price made a difference. There is a whole body of information about the different quality levels and how best to buy and store asparagus. You can pay up to EUR 15 per kilo for the top quality white asparagus here. Here is some more info on "Spargel", which is the German word for asparagus and which, apparently, has made its way into the English language to refer to the white asparagus.
To make a long story short, I quickly worked my way up to the top of the heap. There was an asparagus stand outside Frankfurt's top kitchen store that basically was selling asparagus that had been harvested in the morning just south of Frankfurt in the Rheinland-Pfalz. Local sayings emphasize that the best asparagus is harvested in the morning and eaten with the afternoon meal. It was expensive but worth every cent. There are several important asparagus centers near Frankfurt, so obtaining really fresh asparagus is quite easy. I assume that "terroir" also plays an important role in the taste of the asparagus, so I can only speak of local products. Just as I've never had better tasting potatoes than in Germany, it may be that German white asparagus is better than its foreign cousins.
The key signs of freshness are: 1. the asparagus base should be moist, not dry; if you squeeze it, a bit of juice should come out (don't go there, Margaret.); and 2. when you rub the asparagus together, they should squeak lightly. If you manage to find top quality white asparagus, wrap them in a damp towel and keep them refrigerated until you are ready to prepare them, preferably the same day. Buy a decent peeler -- there are special peelers for the white asparagus -- and try to peel off the stringy skin completely without removing too much of the underlying flesh. The stringy skin has a bitter taste. Unlike green asparagus, you need to peel the entire white asparagus from just below the head to the base. Normally, you cut off the first one or two centimeters from the base as well. Cook the asparagus just long enough so that they are done but not too soft (the thicker German asparagus take between 8 and 10 minutes). Another trick to enhance the mildness and flavor is to first cook the skin peels in the water to create a base and to add a bit of salt and sugar to the water. I have even seen recipes that add butter to the water.
I only eat white asparagus served in one of two ways. A classic meal here is freshly cooked asparagus with unsalted butter and cooked potatoes (Salzkartoffeln). Just add a glass of good white wine (Riesling or Chardonnay grapes go quite well) and enjoy. For a heartier version, make fried potatoes with onion and diced ham (Bratkartoffeln mit Speck). [I have yet to begin my opus on German Potato Culture.] Alternatively, make a vinaigrette dressing and chill the asparagus for a fantastic appetizer. The asparagus that we had yesterday were a bit soft, but had a great, mild flavor.
I like green asparagus. Sometimes it has a metallic taste, but once in a while we eat it just for variety. In the restaurants here you almost never see green asparagus. If you order "Spargel", it will be white. The most interesting asparagus that I've eaten was during a short vacation in Alsace along the wine route south of Strasbourg. Friends of ours had been going to the village for years and were regulars at a restaurant that served upscale local fare. We're not talking about Michelin star quality, just authentic regional food with an attention to season. One May evening, wild asparagus was on the menu. I did not even know it existed and did not know what to expect. When my meal arrived, there was a generous portion of what looked like wild grass on my plate. The stems were only a few millimeters wide. The stems were tender, the flavor, delicate, and the homemade hollandaise sauce turned it into a memorable dish.
I have now made a mental note to myself to prepare a trio of asparagus(es) if I can find all three in the coming days.
To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, it may be
a phallus symbol, but it's also an asparagus.
Let me know if you are able to duplicate my results, Margaret. We're trying to improve Franco-German-UK-US cooperation here. Which reminds me of an international joke. A group of leading intellectuals from France, Germany, the UK and USA were at a conference. Someone suggested a competition to last one year. Each group of nationalities would produce a work about the elephant, and they would compare results the next year. I'll finish the joke in the comments.