Blog #18: Eating in Season - White Asparagus

May 12 2021 
Monika Weber-Fahr & Miya Komori-Glatz
Want to make sustainable food choices? Seasonal eating is one of the best ways to start! The impact on your environmental footprint is immediate - eating seasonally helps say "no” to produce that is either transported from afar or produced here with higher energy or pesticide cost than would otherwise be needed. Here in Austria, the variety of choices of seasonal vegetables is greatest between May and October - although during the winter there are also many good options, including beets, kale, various sprouts, cauliflower, and so on. 
The LivingLight blog will occasionally offer a review of seasonal vegetable choices - in particular where they are particular to Austria and perhaps not as well known to our more international community. One such vegetable - visible on markets since late April and fully in season in May and June - is the White Asparagus (Spargel). Many of our readers will be more familiar with green asparagus - which can also be found freshly at the markets and in the shops right now. And yes, some of you may be aware of the big and very legitimate debates around imported (green) asparagus - in terms of the environmental cost of transport and water use, in particular from Peru. In this article, instead, we’ll focus on the much hyped white and local version.
 
Picture: Fresh from the Market - three types of Asparagus.
Considered a delicacy, few vegetables are celebrated as much in German-speaking countries as fresh White Asparagus:  If you keep an eye out for it - in particular now that restaurants are due to open up in a few weeks - you will find Spargelwochen (Asparagus Weeks) in shops as well as restaurants, and many restaurants have dedicated Spargelmenues (Asparagus Menus) with many options for eating the White Gold.  You might enjoy noting that asparagus is the focus of a dedicated Spargelmuseum in Southern Germany, and that  asparagus made it into the Arts and even into poetry and wisdom!
Right now, here in Vienna, Spargel comes to the markets fresh, daily, right from the Marchfeld - the area in Austria where most Spargel is grown. The EU has recognized Marchfeldspargel as a protected brand- noting that the particular climate and soil provide a distinct flavor.  Only those Spargel are grown here that really fit or belong to the area (who knew: there are about 300 different types, hailing from Siberia to South Africa).  The Marchfeld is the plain between Vienna and Bratislava - beautifully dotted with villages and farms - and it is easily reachable by bicycle (2 hours) or car; when you go there, you can also buy your own Spargel right at the farms themselves.
 
Austrians speak of the royal vegetable or the king amongst vegetables, and so it is not surprising that Spargel does not come cheap. Producing it takes enormous efforts: White Asparagus grows entirely under the surface and at harvest each is dug out, one by one, then cooled with ice water, sorted, and transported on the same day to shops across Austria. During harvest time, farmers mostly hire seasonal workers for this very intensive work, oftentimes for several months; it’s comparable only to harvest times on vineyards in many areas.
There are many many many recipes for preparing Spargel, even though the form most commonly found in Austria involves 4-7 Spargel and some boiled potatoes covered with a bit of melted butter or a bechamel sauce, typically accompanied by a few slices of cold-cut ham. The many vegetarian options can involve egg, pasta, or mushrooms, and then there are the varieties with fish and meats, as well as regional varieties. It's easy to prepare - but pay attention: White Spargel, in contrast to green Spargel, must be peeled. It also requires boiling (be careful that it does not break) right to the perfect moment when it is soft enough to be cut and eaten but not too mushy either (note: al dente White Spargel is poorly cooked Spargel).
And a final hint for the health-concerned amongst our readers: Spargel is super healthy, full of vitamin C, and great for weight loss also ;-).
So, if you have not tried White Asparagus yet (this season) - now is the time to go for it!

Asparagus peels and trunks, boiled in hot water, make a great stock for soup and sauces; very healthy, too.
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