The Glorious Asparagus

Along with the arrival of spring, you may have noticed a certain vegetable becoming the focus and headliner at local supermarkets and farmers markets—asparagus (“Spargel” in German). Spring is officially “Spargelzeit” (asparagus season) as local crops become ready for harvesting in early April. In Switzerland, asparagus is a particular specialty of the Valais region, where it grows best in the sandy soil between Martigny, Fully, and Saxon. Asparagus also plays a starring role on the menus in neighboring Germany and particularly the region of Baden, from just beyond the border here up to the area of Heidelberg. (Lower Saxony in northern Germany is also a prime asparagus-growing region.). There is even a scenic “Asparagus Route” that runs through the region of Baden and along which you will find many towns that celebrate the harvest season with a “Spargelfest” (asparagus festival). Practically every restaurant along this route sells dishes in spring with asparagus as an appetizer, soup, side dish, main entrée, or even part of a dessert (!

A drive through any asparagus-growing region in spring will have you encounter farmers’ road-side stands selling fresh asparagus (“frischer Spargel”) picked earlier in the day—be sure to stop and treat yourself! You can also buy local white asparagus at the supermarket; note, however, that the season at farmers’ markets traditionally finishes on June 24 (“Johannistag,” or Nativity of St. John the Baptist); after this date, the plants are allowed to grow out and become a bush, to gather enough strength for the next year. Therefore, any asparagus that you buy after this date may not be local or fresh.

With the many ways of preparing this vegetable, not to mention the health benefits it possesses, now might be a great time to get acquainted with this superfood.

History of Asparagus

The earliest image of asparagus is on an Egyptian frieze dating to 3000 BC, where it is pictured as part of an offering. Greeks and Romans ate it fresh when in season, as well as dried it for use in winter. Romans would freeze it high in the Alps, for the Feast of Epicurus. A recipe for cooking asparagus is even found in the oldest surviving cookbook, Apicius’ “De re coquinaria, Book III” from the third century A.D. However, asparagus really only started to gain popularity in Europe in the 1500s.

Asparagus Varieties

The asparagus plant was long thought to be part of the lily family, along with the onion, garlic, and tulips; however, genetic research has more recently placed it in its own family. Only one of the five main species of asparagus is edible, but within that species, there are many varieties that come in many flavors, colors, and thicknesses from pencil thin to thick. The part you eat is the young shoot of the plant, harvested before it grows into the full plant.

While you may picture a green vegetable when you think of asparagus, the most popular variety in Europe is white. To cultivate white asparagus, the shoots are covered with soil as they grow: without exposure to sunlight there is no photosynthesis, and the shoots remain white in color. You can easily recognize asparagus fields by the rows and rows of soil mounds that allow the shoots to grow taller before they reach the light. They need to be harvested just as they break through the soil, otherwise the tips will turn greenish or violet. This is a strenuous job, as workers have to patrol the fields once or twice a day, spending most of the time bent over to inspect the soil mounds for signs of asparagus spears breaking through the surface and cutting them off deep underground. 

Compared with the green variety, the white asparagus is less bitter and more tender. However, white asparagus always has to be peeled, so thicker spears are preferred. For green asparagus, thin spears can be prepared simply by snapping off the tough ends prior to cooking. No peeling is necessary.

Dietary Benefits

The World’s Healthiest Foods Rating system has awarded asparagus a rating as an “excellent source” (the highest rating given) for eight vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B1, C, and E; folate; iron; copper; and tryptophan. It is also a great source of fiber, as well as of potassium, calcium, phosphorous, and chromium, a trace mineral that enhances the ability of insulin to control blood sugar levels.

At only 20 calories per 100 g, asparagus is packed with antioxidants and ranks among the top fruits and vegetables for its ability to neutralize cell-damaging free radicals. It is a particularly rich source of glutathione, a detoxifying compound that helps break down cancer-causing agents and other harmful compounds, which may help protect against and fight certain forms of cancer.

Serving Suggestions

The “classic” way to eat white asparagus in Switzerland is to peel the asparagus, boil it for about 20 minutes in salt water with a bit of sugar added, and then serve it with new potatoes (which is why you will often find small new potatoes next to the asparagus in the store), thin slices of ham (eg, Schwarzwälder Schinken), and either melted butter or Hollandaise sauce. In France, asparagus is also often steamed and served with olive oil, Parmesan cheese, or mayonnaise. Asparagus is a great vegetable to use in soups, chopped and added into a broth with other veggies of choice, or as the main ingredient in a warming cream soup (see recipe below).

Whatever color you choose, you can also roast, grill, or stir-fry your asparagus. These quick-cooking, waterless methods will preserve the fantastic nutritional content and antioxidant power of asparagus. Enjoy!

Fun Fact

Have you ever noticed that your urine has an odd smell after eating asparagus? This is thought to be caused mainly by a sulfur-containing compound unique to asparagus (asparagusic acid) that, when metabolized, is converted into volatile compounds giving off a distinctive smell. Other sulfur-containing compounds found in asparagus called mercaptans—which are also found in rotten eggs, onions, garlic, and skunk scent—may also play a role, but scientists have not yet figured out all the details. There are no harmful effects, either from the sulfuric compounds or the odor.

Interestingly, not everybody seems to produce these odorous compounds after eating asparagus. Moreover, not everyone has the ability to actually detect the smell. Whether you can or can’t is genetically determined. You’ll know it if you are one of those who can!