Photo: RitaE / pixabay.com
White asparagus

Culture Shock: Spargelzeit

To say that Germans love asparagus is an understatement.

31.05.2021

by Evdokia Prassa

“How European of you!” exclaimed my dad the first time I told him over our daily video calls that I had a creamy asparagus soup for lunch. He was even more impressed to hear that, contrary to his expectations, I hadn’t savoured this velvety delicacy at an upscale restaurant, but at the student Mensa in-between seminars. In contemporary Greek cultural mythologies (not to be confused with the world-renowned — or rather, notorious — ancient Greek myths), asparagus has an epicurean flair to it; and to my smalltown Greek family’s ears, a modest Spargelsuppe sounds like an hors d'oeuvre that is in the same gourmet league as escargots.

What my father’s innocuous, spontaneous exclamation implied is how we perceive our Greek identity as culturally distinct from (rather than integral to) the European label: that’s because we tend to associate the term “European” with Western Europe and/or the EU. The latter does include my home country, which has been historically referred to as the “cradle of European civilization” (in fact, googling “greece cradle of european civilization” yields approximately 4,860,000 results). Yet, as a result of its geopolitical position at the southeastern edge of Europe and at the crossroads between Asia and Africa, the land that forms the contemporary Greek state has been a cultural melting pot since antiquity. That is to say, Greece as a homogenous culture that became the metaphorical cradle to the “European civilization” is a modern myth: it stems from anachronistic re-imaginings of ancient Greece from a Western European perspective.

In the Balkan corner that modern Greece inhabits, the cultural hybridity is omnipresent. Western Europe sounds foreign, politically stable, rich, and therefore exclusive: the land of haute couture, haute cuisine, and all things haute. And back home, asparagus falls into the “haute cuisine” category.

Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I first came across asparagus from the Greek region of Kavala being sold at my local supermarket here in Berlin. It was my first Spargelsaison in Germany. As asparagus is not exactly a staple of Greek cuisine, I had no idea we cultivated it back home, let alone exported it to Germany. But export is precisely the reason why Greece is actually the 18th largest asparagus-producing country in the world. Despite the fact that asparagus consumption in the region dates all the way back to ancient Greece, Greeks nowadays don’t have much culinary use for the so-called white gold: white asparagus grown in Greece is almost exclusively sold to Germany, with asparagus-eating Greeks preferring the green variety, which is eaten in a salad.

But my biggest culture shock regarding asparagus was witnessing the inexplicable fascination with it here in Germany. Of course, I won’t pretend that I don’t love a hearty dish of boiled asparagus and potatoes topped with homemade hollandaise sauce: I can see why Germans love this wholesome spring vegetable. But calling it “love” feels like an understatement, as the German excitement for asparagus verges on paroxysm, which still remains a bit of a mystery to me. Of course, it’s a very seasonal produce, meaning that it’s not available for very long every year; but so are strawberries, Bärlauch, and blood oranges, yet none of them has the cult following that asparagus has. In fact, the yearly per capita consumption of asparagus in Germany is 1.7 kilos, and, as Spargelzeit here is short, importing asparagus from countries with a warmer climate, such as Greece, allows German consumers to give in to their asparagus cravings earlier in the year than they normally would.

Still, how can somebody be so crazy about a vegetable that’s eaten boiled? As someone who didn’t grow up in Germany, to my mind, it’s like being obsessed with broccoli. Many years later, I still remember my Greek best friend’s face flinching in disgust when I mentioned the word “asparagus” to her: the first time she ever saw white asparagus was when she was an Erasmus student in Spain. Her French flatmate loved buying pickled white asparagus pieces in an airtight jar, and these reminded my friend of human fingers. Here in Germany, even kids love their Spargel. How is this possible? It’s a universal fact that kids hate vegetables — especially if they’re boiled.

I’ve since come to the conclusion that in Germany, Spargelzeit signifies the proper beginning of spring: it’s the time of the year when the weather mellows, the temperature rises, and nature blossoms. The appearance of asparagus-selling street market stalls coincides with days becoming longer and with more frequent sunshine. But since today is not one of those lovely sunny Berlin days, I will curl up with a big bowl of comforting homemade Spargelsuppe.

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