Germany celebrates its annual ′edible ivory′ | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 12.06.2013
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Germany celebrates its annual 'edible ivory'

Asparagus accounts for the largest area of cultivated land in Germany, but is only available for just over eight weeks each year. Germans can never seem to get enough of the slender, subterranean vegetable.

Leonhard Palm, now 49, picked up his first asparagus before he even learned to walk. His family's love of the long white vegetable goes back two generations when his maternal grandfather bought a farm in Bornheim near Bonn in 1950.

These days, his grandfather's farm is managed by three generations of relatives on his aunt's side, while Palm organically farms asparagus land which he inherited from his wife's father.

During the annual eight-week season, which ends this year on Midsummer's Day (June 24), Palm eats asparagus with bacon every day for lunch. With two hectares of land producing up to 30 five-kilogram crates a day when the weather is good, he can well afford to do this.

Leonhard Palm and Raphael Schmitz , both asparagus farmers in Bornheim

For Palm (left), asparagus is a way of life

At their farm, like many in the region, the Palms and their four daughters run a shop which sells fresh produce and sauces for asparagus aficionados. Around 300 customers visit their farm each week during asparagus season.

Palm's eldest daughter, Andrea, who was the region's Asparagus Queen two years ago, recalls one customer driving all the way from Munich to buy 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of her family's Bornheim-grown asparagus. The Palms have even sent asparagus to customers in Berlin.

The vegetable of kings

Every year without fail, when asparagus season begins in April, restaurant billboards start luring customers with special recipes and outdoor market vendors haggle over the kilo price with hungry customers.

Bettina Hilf, a 30-year-old from Bonn, remembers disliking the bland taste of asparagus as a child. However, she reacquired a taste for both the green and white vegetable as a young adult. "If it was available all the time it probably wouldn't be so special," she said.

Andrea Palm as Bornheim's Asparagus Queen in 2011

Andrea Palm was crowned Bornheim's Asparagus Queen in 2011

"It's the vegetable of kings," said Erich Fehn, owner of the popular Cologne restaurant, Em Krützsche. Traditionally, only the very rich could afford the vegetable, also dubbed "edible ivory" for its shape and color. Both Fehn and farmer Leonhard Palm say that asparagus has become more affordable in the last few decades, with current prices at around seven to 10 euros ($ 9-13) a kilo.

Fehn took over the management at Em Krützsche in downtown Cologne 43 years ago. He has served asparagus each year since then and expects his daughter Sylvia to continue the tradition when she takes up the reins in a few years.

Whether boiled, peeled, julienned, salted, buttered or smothered in a creamy hollandaise, asparagus is a flexible accompaniment to the plat de jour. As a seasonal treat, it's often enjoyed fresh.

In fact, 21 percent of all asparagus in Germany is sold directly from the farm, in shops such as the one owned by the Palms. Rarely would a German make the same effort for another vegetable: Only two percent of cauliflower sales entice the buyer to the farm.

Asparagus on tour

Farmer Peter Lipp holds out a bunch of asparagus

Get it while you can: White asparagus is only around for eight weeks a year

For the diehard asparagus fans, specially planned routes lead them through multiple fields and farms, with plenty of tasting opportunities along the way. In the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg, the route stretches 135 kilometers from Scherzheim to Schwetzingen, the self-proclaimed asparagus capital of the world.

The so-called Spargelstrasse (Asparagus Street) in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia offers cycling routes through some 450 asparagus farms, many of which also have in-house restaurants.

What's more, Germans looking for love can also join special singles-only tours led by chef Clemens Tetas. One must be prepared, however, to go the distance on a motorbike. For those who don't find Mr or Ms Right among the fellow asparagus connoisseurs, there is consolation in the freshly prepared meal at the end of the tour, cooked by Tetas himself.

"Bis Johanni, nicht vergessen, sieben Wochen Spargelessen." - Don't forget to eat asparagus seven weeks before the summer solstice, advises the old proverb. Farmer Palm's last words? "I like it because it tastes good."

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