Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 10, 2022

Traveling the "Spargelstrasse"

I've always been a fan of asparagus, having had it "for the picking" on our farm when I was growing up. But the first time I tasted the white version that the Germans love was in 1990 at a restaurant in Nierstein on the Rhine River when we were traveling with husband Art's mother Donna.

This year, we decided to visit the heart of the "Spargelstrasse" - asparagus road - to see first hand the center of where Germans grow their chunky white version they call "white gold."

Beelitz, a historic town dating back to 997 A.D., is located southwest of Berlin. The town also sponsors an annual garden show and I'm always "up" for any kind of event involving flowers. While we spent hours wandering the various paths filled with tulips, poppies, irises, peonies, pansies, fountains, wooden owl and fox sculptures, quirky statuary and more, we discovered one area dedicated to the story of white asparagus.

According to germanfoods.org, Beelitz produces close to 50 percent of the county's annual 15,000 tons of asparagus. The price for a ton can be as much as $4,000 - quite a sum for a vegetable!

The Spargelstrasse runs from Beelitz in Brandenburg to Bruchsal in Baden Wuerttemberg. We were just one of the thousands who traveled part of this 750-kilometer road, bordered by thousands of acres suitable for growing white asparagus. People can cut their own with the permission of the farmers or buy bundles at roadside stands.

We traveled only a small portion of the road, but saw mounds where the asparagus had been harvested and were amused by the giant plastic "sculptures" - were they supposed to be an asparagus sprouts? - at the road�s edge, beckoning us to stop to pick some ourselves.

The German version is grown completely under the soil, so it is never exposed to sunlight, blocking the development of chlorophyll, which keeps the spears milky white. As they grow, more dirt is mounded around them or they are covered with plastic, keeping them out of the light until harvest. Some believe the white version is less bitter than the green variety, although I like both.

According to historians, in 1668, white asparagus became the royal vegetable of choice when Prince Karl Ludwig planted it in the castle gardens near Stuttgart to be served at banquets. In the 19th century, white asparagus was conserved in cans, allowing the general public, as well as the elite classes, to also enjoy it. The broadcast station Deutsche Welle - "German Wave" - said the appearance of white asparagus in the Beelitz area can be traced to when farmer Carl Herrmann scattered seeds across his land in 1861. The loose sandy earth of the area proved ideal for the crop, and it wasn't long before he was selling his produce at the local market. By 1927, more than 1,000 acres in Beelitz were devoted to asparagus.

Trucks from Berlin would transport the vegetable to the city's market stalls. Meeting the ever-increasing demand proved challenging, and seasonal workers were brought in to help. In 1934, Beelitz organized a festival to honor the spring sprout.

But during World War II, the people of Beelitz were no longer allowed to grow asparagus, the rationale being it contained too few calories to warrant the effort.

After the war, asparagus enjoyed a brief renaissance before it was once again suppressed by the authorities. Beelitz is located in what became Communist East Germany where its farmers were subjected to collectivization. Once again, asparagus was not considered a priority. However, individuals continued to grow it in private gardens and because of its scarcity, its value grew. In Berlin, the so-called "white gold" of Beelitz became a sort of unofficial currency, sometimes traded for car parts and clothing.

After reunification, West German farmers arrived in Beelitz with modern farming equipment. Together with the locals, they helped revive the tradition of growing and celebrating asparagus. The Beelitz product has even been protected with a European Union trademark since March 15, 2018. Workers come from Eastern Europe for the harvest.

The town again has a festival which features an asparagus-themed parade and a dance by a local troupe known as the "asparagus ladies." Since 1997, it includes the selection of an asparagus queen, whose duties include leading the parade and digging a few shoots of the season's first crop.

While we all enjoyed that 1990 dinner featuring asparagus soup, Art didn't tell Donna how much it cost until after we were done eating. With her frugal nature, honed by being a young bride as the Depression set in, he knew she wouldn't have been able to enjoy the meal. When he later told her the total bill was around $100 for just the three of us, her jaw dropped and she was speechless - not an affliction Donna often experienced.

Two days before our trip to Beelitz, we visited Berlin's Hackescher Markt area. The offers of Beelitzer spargel were everywhere. The restaurant we selected offered soup or salad with ours, but we opted to have it with hollandaise sauce accompanied by new potatoes.

While we waited, Art and I reminisced about that meal of more than 30 years ago and when our order arrived, those recollections somehow seemed to make our white gold taste even better. There�s no question that sometimes the best things in life are so simple.

Top (l-r): some of the plots at the garden show were identified by the names of common drinks. This one was called "Bloody Mary"; typical sign found in front of grocery stores proclaiming "Fresh Asparagus"; on the Spargelstrasse, markers such as this one lets the driver know he is on the right path. Bottom (l-r): an inflatable sprout announces this field was planted with asparagus; in Beelitz, the "white gold" even seems to spring from the sidewalks; 2022's asparagus queen; Art and I at a restaurant in central Berlin are about to be treated to the local favorite accompanied by new potatoes. (queen photo from www.web-bb.de)

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