It’s a sunny morning in Schwetzingen when a woman at a market stall rubs two thick stalks of white asparagus against each other.
“If it’s really fresh,” she’s telling her customers, “the asparagus stalks should squeak when you do this.”
I’m holding a small carton of strawberries, but I can see it’s the boxes and bags of “spargel” (asparagus) displayed in all shapes and sizes that everyone else seems to be lining up for. Even more so when we all hear the “squeak” signifying that oh, yeah, the asparagus sold here is very fresh.
This is springtime in the German federal state of Baden-Wurttemberg. Forget beer and brats, pork and potatoes. Starting here in mid-April, Germans begin celebrating the country’s favorite vegetable: white asparagus. During a visit last May, I discovered the reason for the hoopla — along with a sunshine-filled region that was bursting with blooms, charm and history.
Centered in Schwetzingen, the self-proclaimed “Asparagus Capital of the World,” the Baden Asparagus Route is roughly an 85-mile route through several small towns in southwest Germany (Lower Saxony in northwest Germany is another famous asparagus area). But I hadn’t traveled this far only to indulge in a vegetable, albeit a delicious one. My trip itinerary was a mixed menu of highlights in this part of the country I had not visited before. Besides checking out the “royal vegetable,” I hoped to see some palaces, sip local wine, sample Black Forest schnapps and taste the region’s other specialty: the Kirsch-drenched cherry and cream confection known as Black Forest cake.
Considered the gateway to the Black Forest, Baden-Baden was my first stop. Undamaged during both world wars, the beautiful city has been a spa destination for some 2,000 years, famous for its curative thermal springs. But its popularity didn’t boom until the early 19th century when Europe’s aristocracy began flocking there to steep their weary rich bodies in its healing pools.
A soak was certainly on my agenda, but so was a visit to the city’s landmark Café Konig, which I’d heard was renowned for its Black Forest cake.
The patio adjacent to the shop was a scene from an old romantic movie. Sunlight fell through the branches of a huge chestnut tree and landed on tables, where plates of desserts sparkled enticingly and people smiled as they dug into cakes and tarts.
Inside the shop, tortes and tea were served in a mirrored parlor and glass display cases tantalized with the traditional sweets I’d expected, including the famous cake. What I didn’t expect: baskets filled with white stalks of asparagus, wrapped in cellophane and accented with neon green ribbon. They turned out to be white chocolate, molded to look like white asparagus. It was my first indication of how serious this region takes its special spring vegetable.
Afterward, I walked to the Museum Frieder Burda — which houses a collection focused on contemporary art — through the magnificent park and gardens of the Lichtentaler Allee. Lilacs in bloom scented the air on the tree-lined avenue; a horse and carriage clip-clopped by, taking visitors on a slow-paced tour of the city. It occurred to me that while people have long been drawn to this city for its restorative waters, the air and light of Baden-Baden seemed to offer something just as healing.
It was late afternoon by the time I checked into the Hotel Heiligenstein, a wine-themed hotel surrounded by hillside vineyards on the outskirts of Baden-Baden. Earlier, I’d stopped for a wine tasting at the winegrowers’ cooperative, the Baden-Badener Winzergenossenschaft (try saying that several times after a few samples), where many wines from this area known as the Rebland are offered for sale and tasting.
At the hotel, the restaurant featured more local white wines considered the perfect accompaniment to the evening’s special seasonal white asparagus menu — which I, of course, ordered.
In Germany when it’s “Spargelzeit,” literally “asparagus time” — from mid-April through late June), travelers will find the vegetable in all sorts of establishments, from taverns to Michelin-starred restaurants. On these menus, it’s usually the main focus of the meal — never a side dish — and often ordered by the pound or half-pound. Different from the green asparagus we’re accustomed to in the U.S., white asparagus is grown underground, tastes more delicate, and is typically bigger.
That night my pile of steamed and peeled “spears of spring air” (it has also been dubbed “edible ivory” and “white gold”) arrived at the table unadorned, plated with a triangularly folded crepe-like pancake and three small round new potatoes. A rich hollandaise sauce was served on the side.
Another specialty: schnapps
The Black Forest area around Baden-Baden is known not just for its namesake cake and its wine, but also its schnapps distilleries. In Oberkirch alone, known as the “capital of distillation,” there are 891 distilleries. Touring the family-owned Distillery Franz Fies one morning, I learned how they make their various fruit concoctions including mirabelle, raspberry and Williams (pear). “In this region, we are rich in fruit,” said Anne-Katrin Hormann, granddaughter of the original owner and general manager. Their most popular, “cherry water,” (Kirschwasser) was said to be the same used to soak the cherries in the Black Forest cake at Baden-Baden’s Café Konig.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Schwetzingen that I saw asparagus schnapps, however. A single stalk of white asparagus steeps inside the bottle. I was more intrigued by a bakery where cupcakes were decorated with a marzipan “spear” of the vegetable.
I’d come to Schwetzingen from Bruchsal (about 20 miles or 30 minutes to the south), which is also on the Baden Asparagus Route. Although it’s considered home to one of the largest asparagus markets in Europe, its opulent Bruchsal Palace is its main claim to fame.
Another stop, Schwetzingen Palace, may have played a more important role in the region’s history, though. Mozart performed within its walls, Voltaire strolled its exquisite grounds, but most important, this is where royal workers first began growing “spargel” back in 1668.
A tour there by a docent dressed as an 18th-century asparagus farmer also informed our group that at that time, the special hand-harvested vegetable was only served at palace dinners to royalty.
Today in Schwetzingen, everyone eats the “white gold.” During its annual Spargel Festival — held the first Saturday in May; in 2019 the festival in Schwetzingen is May 4 — you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t have it on the menu. Activities also include asparagus peeling contests, galas and art exhibits.
Across from the castle, on the Schlossplatz, near a bronze sculpture nicknamed the “asparagus woman,” a small produce stand sold the first fresh asparagus I saw in town. But strolling the streets later, I found numerous signs and arrows directing me to other places to purchase the fresh vegetable.
One sign led me to a fifth-generation backyard produce stand. Open two months each spring when asparagus is in season, it’s one of a designated few that cultivates white asparagus from the actual castle garden’s “royal roots.”
Folks chatted and looked over the bins of asparagus to buy. Family members worked behind the tables, including 86-year-old Ilse Fackel-Kretz, who was helping clean, sort and sell the white asparagus, and her daughter Elfriede Fackel-Kretz-Keller.
Later on a tour of the family field, I watched as Elfriede showed how the asparagus is harvested: Each stalk is carefully dug up and cut out by hand, and then the mound is meticulously covered up again. It looked like backbreaking work and it quickly was apparent to me why the vegetable is so revered. As Ilse Fackel-Kretz, who also helps during the harvest, later explained: “It’s called the royal vegetable because you have to bow down” to harvest it.
That evening, when I went out for dinner and faced a plate full of the “royal vegetable,” I had a new appreciation for the prized food I was about to eat. As I picked up my fork, I felt almost noble.
Donna Tabbert Long (@tabbertlong) of Minneapolis writes about food and travel.