This Lesser-known Spring Harvest in Germany is Celebrated by Locals for Its 'White Gold'
Each May, farms, restaurants, and even a festival welcome travelers to try the local produce. This is the annual Spring Harvest in Germany, celebrated by Locals for its 'White Gold' tradition. This event marks the end of the pandemic lockdowns that shut out seasonal pickers from Eastern Europe. Locals gathered at roadside markets marked by giant white plastic models of the vegetable, or hand-painted signs announcing FRISCHER SPARGEL (fresh asparagus). Visitors from all over Germany gathered in Schwetzingen to celebrate the annual harvest, with the mayor saying that asparagu belongs to the city like nothing else. The event featured a variety of activities, such as as paragus throwing and peeling competitions.
Published : 3 months ago by Jason Wilson in
By the time I arrived for dinner, I was in a full-on asparagus frenzy. All afternoon, I had been following part of the 84-mile “asparagus trail” that passes through the German state of Baden-Württemberg, stopping at tiny roadside markets marked by giant white plastic models of the vegetable, or hand-painted signs announcing FRISCHER SPARGEL (fresh asparagus). When I got to Simianer Spargelhof, on the outskirts of Hambrücken, I followed a path through rows of dirt mounds, beneath which lay what Germans call “white gold.”
Inside the restaurant, a crowd of diners devoured white asparagus in every preparation imaginable. I sat by myself at the end of a common table; at the other end a large man with red cheeks was tucking in to an enormous plate of schnitzel accompanied by a stack of plump asparagus spears. I ordered asparagus soup, an herb pancake topped with asparagus slices, and, finally, the classic preparation: a half-dozen steamed stalks doused in hollandaise sauce and served with potatoes. The server asked, “Is someone else with you?” When I told her no, this was all for me, she shook her head.
I glanced at my dining companion at the end of the table. “I think I ordered too much,” I said sheepishly. “Eh,” he said, with a shrug. “It’s mostly water anyway.”
It’s hard not to get carried away during Spargelzeit, the annual springtime asparagus harvest. Germans consume some 127,000 tons of the vegetable each year; it’s so ubiquitous that supermarkets bring in asparagus-peeling machines (the outer skin of the white spears is thicker and more bitter than the green variety, so it is usually removed). So important is the Spargelzeit in Germany that there was grave concern about the 2020 harvest, when pandemic lockdowns shut out seasonal pickers who typically come over from Eastern Europe.
In early May of last year, I followed the Badische Spargelstraße (the official name of the trail), stopping in the towns of Heidelberg, Mannheim, Reilingen, and Bruchsal. My target was Schwetzingen, a city of almost 22,000 that is Germany’s self-proclaimed asparagus capital. The vegetable was first cultivated in the garden of the Baroque Schwetzingen Palace in 1668. During the following centuries, “white gold” morphed into an industry, with the first asparagus festival held in 1904. I checked in to Hotel Gästehaus am Schloss, steps from the palace and the main square. Also close by is the famous Spargelfrau, a statue of a woman selling (what else?) asparagus at a market stall.
The morning of the festival, I met with the mayor, René Pöltl. “Asparagus belongs to our city like nothing else,” he told me. “People say you can taste the difference here.” I was also introduced to the year’s “Asparagus Queen,” a 20-year-old named Anna Schumacher whose family runs a farm in nearby Forst. Dressed in a gown and tiara, Schumacher presided over the day’s festivities, which included asparagus throwing and peeling competitions. (The prizes? Asparagus liqueur and special peelers.)
I ate lunch at Spargelhof Fackel-Kretz, a farm not far from the palace. There, 90-year-old Ilse Fackel-Kretz-Keller had been up since before dawn making gallons of asparagus salad. The woman sitting next to me, overcome with emotion when she saw the asparagus being wheeled in, said, “Oh my god, look how beautiful they are!”
Later, Fackel-Kretz-Keller’s daughter Elfriede took us into the fields so we could see how the crop is harvested. Unlike green asparagus, the white variety is grown under the soil, which prevents photosynthesis from coloring the stalks. The plucking process is meticulous and labor-intensive — a good picker harvests about 75 spears in an hour, unearthing one subterranean stalk at a time. “You have to have good eyes. You’ll see a crack in the soil, like a star,” Elfriede said.
Still in gown and tiara, Anna the Asparagus Queen demonstrated perfect technique, digging around the stalk with two fingers and then slicing it at the base. This hands-on work is why Spargel sells at a premium, around $8 to $10 per pound.
There is some grumbling that, in other parts of Germany, farmers have begun using plastic and heating systems to artificially replicate growing conditions, pushing the asparagus season earlier, even into March. Not in Schwetzingen, where things kick off in mid to late April and usually end in June. “We start when it starts,” Pöltl told me. “We don’t know when. The asparagus gods know.”
It’s this once-a-year phenomenon that makes Spargelzeit so special. Locals gorge for as long as they can, as I did on my trip. “All season, we’ll eat it every day,” Pöltl told me. “And at the end, we say, ‘Okay, it’s enough. We will wait again till next year.’ ”
A version of this story first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Spring Fever."