Oil painting by artist Edouard_Manet, "Bunch of Asparagus," Photo: Wikicommons

23 Apr Ode to the Asparagus

Hark the herald spring. It’s asparagus season.

A sure sign that the season of renewal has arrived is annually announced by the plethora of asparagus appearing in the markets.

Green, purple, white—the glorious asparagus is here.

Sing the virtues of asparagus and read on to be inspired for a celebration of asparagus by following “asparagus routes” in Germany.

Oil painting by Jacob Fopsen van Es

Asparagus Has Its Routes in History

The perennial plant with its long, scaled stalks and feathery leaves has been enjoyed as a vegetable and even for its medicinal qualities since ancient times.

Asparagus was on the scene as early as 3000 B.C., as first documented in an Egyptian frieze from the era. Since then, the vegetable has appeared in artwork continually throughout the ages.

Oil painting by AdriaenvanUtrecht

Asparagus adorns works of art in many still-life paintings of the 17th century, such as those by Flemish baroque painter Jacob Fopsen van Es in his painting of a fish on a terracotta plate along with bunches of asparagus and other food; Adriaen van Utrecht who painted fruit and asparagus on a ledge; and Adriaen Coorte who created his “Asparagus and Red Currants.”

In the late 1800s, French modernist artist Édouard Manet showed his admiration for asparagus with his oil painting on canvas of a bunch on a bed of rocket lettuce.

The story goes that “A Bunch of Asparagus” was sold to the art patron Charles Ephrussi for 800 francs. Ephrussi sent instead 1,000 francs. Manet painted another work of a single spear of asparagus and sent the painting to Ephrussi, noting that “there was one missing from your bunch.” This painting now hangs in the Musee Orsay, Paris, France. The “Bunch of Asparagus” is part of the art collection of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany.

Photo: CreativeCommons

Health Benefits of Asparagus

Not only is asparagus beautiful to behold and delicious to eat, but it is also low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. It’s a good source of calcium, magnesium, zinc, and selenium, and a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese.

Back in the Middle Ages, asparagus was revered as a cure for gout. Today, some feel it even helps relieve stress.

Enjoying Asparagus

The plant is enjoyed while young and especially when the stalks are slender and tender. The older, fatter shoots are tougher and not as much of a delicacy.

Asparagus is green, white, or purple. Green is the most typical. White asparagus is grown under the soil, out of sight of the sun, resulting in the white color. Purple asparagus was the creation of farmers in Italy and has a sweeter flavor.

Crazy Asparagus Factoid

Asparagus “transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume.” — Marcel Proust

Asparagus contains an acid that when digested is broken down into sulfur-based compounds. The result is an odor in the urine after eating asparagus. But not everyone can detect this smell.

In 2010, the company 23andMe published a genome-wide association study on whether participants have “ever noticed a peculiar odor when you pee after eating asparagus.” This study pinpointed a single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in a cluster of olfactory genes associated with the ability to detect the odor.

The result shows that genetics play a role in whether one can detect the smell or not. Who knew?

The Asparagus Season

Available generally year-round now, the true asparagus season begins in some places in February and ends in mid to late- June. In some areas, the season is marked by April 23 (St. George’s Day).

In Germany, where asparagus season is highly celebrated, the rule is “when cherries are red, spargel is dead.” The season of harvesting and eating white asparagus (spargel) begins annually in mid-April and ends on June 24th (St. John day). During this period, Germans consume approximately 70,000 tons of this elegant pale vegetable.

Maps of two of the asparagus routes in Germany. (Left to right) Baden asparagus route ; Lower Saxony asparagus route

Follow the Asparagus Trail

What better way to learn more about asparagus while visiting amazing countryside than to visit Germany during this season to follow an asparagus trail?

Asparagus has been grown and celebrated in Germany since the 1500s. In the beginning, it was planted exclusively for the royal and ducal Baden-Wurttemberg courts. Known in German as spargel, asparagus earned the nicknames “royal vegetable” and “white gold.”

For the active traveler, spargel provides a unique theme for a spring vacation. Pack your bicycle and head to the asparagus source. To follow an “Asparagus Route” by bicycle, pick Germany. There is no better place for this adventure.

(Clockwise from top left) Formula One racing at Hockenheim (Photo: Deposit Photos); Karlsruhe Castle; Summer scene in Heidelberg; Famous white asparagus from Germany; Museum Bruchsal; Heidelberg at night. (Photos: Germany Tourism Board)

Here are two routes you might consider:

1. Baden Asparagus Route

Length: Approximately 84 miles

Highlights along the route:

Bruchsal: Baroque Palace, largest asparagus market in Europe Hockenheim: Formula One skating school Karlsruhe: Palace, Museums Rastatt: Largest asparagus farm in Germany Reilingen: Asparagus and tobacco trail Schwetzingen: Palace, mosque

2. Lower Saxony Asparagus Route

The Lower Saxony Asparagus Route takes visitors on a gourmet tour through the asparagus growing regions of Braunschweig, Hannover, and Umland, Lüneburg Heath, the Mittelweser, and Oldenburg Münsterland. The signposted route starts and ends in Burgdorf and runs parallel to the Asparagus Cycling Trail.

Visitors can watch asparagus growers harvest the vegetable or even help. Lively asparagus festivals are also held in towns along both sides of the route where you can try the delicious dishes made from freshly harvested asparagus served up in local bars and taverns. The many nicknames for asparagus—royal vegetable, spears of spring air, edible ivory—are a testament to the fascination that it continues to inspire among lovers of fine foods.

Length: Approximately 460 miles

Highlights:

Ahnsbeck: Village chapel, bakehouse Bruchhausen-Vilsen: Heritage railway (Museums-Eisenbahn) Burgdorf: Medieval asparagus town, the Asparagus Collection (Spargelsammlung) Cloppenburg: Open-air museum Hoya: State Riding School Nienburg: Asparagus Museum (Spargelmuseum), Asparagus Queen Pageant Landesbergen: The Radler-Scheune barn Rehden: Sheep farm, Western-style ranch (Westernreithof) Uetze: Erse theme park, trestle windmill

For more information see the Germany Travel website: Fresh Asparagus from the Munsterland and Asparagus from Lower Saxony.

Roasted asparagus recipe from Ruffage.

Preparing Asparagus

The most delicious and easiest way to prepare asparagus is either to poach or pan roast it. A fabulous new cookbook, Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, by chef Abra Berens was published this spring with several asparagus recipes for you to try.

This how-to cookbook offers techniques and cooking methods for vegetables. The book is a wonderful reference for preparing all types of vegetables, including asparagus. With over 300 recipes and 140 photographs, this cookbook will be a welcome addition to your library.

Try the Asparagus Pan Roasted,  Asparagus Stalks With Anchovy-Caper Butter and Fresh Herbs and the Salad of Asparagus, Arugula, Egg, and Radish With Mustard Vinaigrette

The new Vegan Cookbook by Tony and Yvonne Bishop-Weston is a guide to vegan food and cooking and includes two asparagus recipes to try: Thai-Style Noodle Salad With Asparagus and Foccia With Mushrooms and Asparagus.

Another great resource for recipes with an Italian influence is The Italian Regional Cookbook by Valentina Harris. You will find these asparagus recipes in this beautifully designed and informative cookbook.



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