We're two weeks from the end of what is arguably the most important season in the German culinary calendar: Spargelzeit, or asparagus time. It's impossible to express just how much the Germans love their white asparagus, but their passion for it veers on being religious. White asparagus is simply asparagus that's been grown under mounds of earth to stop it getting more chlorophyll. This means it ends up far more tender and much more bitter than the green stuff, so you have to be very careful with snapping all of the woody lower end off and peeling what's left very thoroughly: the outside is so bitter that if you taste even the tiniest shred of it, it can put you off the "white gold" for weeks. But there's no time to be put off it, really, because the season only lasts from late-April till (traditionally, and very specifically) 24th June.
I don't know whether white asparagus has yet started to appear on the shelves and/or menus outside of this part of Europe (it's apparently also very popular in Netherlands, Spain, France, Poland, Belgium, and Switzerland) but if those of you outside the area see any, I'd highly recommend grabbing yourself a bunch and giving it a go. In the meantime, you can't move for the stuff round here at the moment: gleaming white spears of various thicknesses, some a delicate violet colour around the leafy tops of their spears. My top asparagus tip (pun wholeheartedly intended, and dedicated to Cliff and Sarah) for choosing the best of white stuff? Never compromise on price: I always pick the most expensive asparagus, and it's definitely worth it.
It took me a couple of attempts to become accustomed to the texture and flavour of white asparagus, but it's safe to say I'm consuming my fair share of it this year. The most important thing is not to expect it to taste anything like green asparagus, and just dig in. It tastes delicious simply baked with salt and butter; in a smooth, creamy soup format; as an unusual pizza topping; alongside a Schnitzel; or served with cooked ham and a buttery sauce. And my favourite kind of buttery sauce is Hollandaise. For the following recipe, taken from my trusty copy of Küchenschätze, I had to step right outside my Hollandaise comfort zone and embrace new ingredients (wine) and a different method. I have to say, having made this recipe four times over the last five or six weeks, that I've come to find my technique much more effective than theirs, so I'm going to offer both. How do you make yours?
Ingredients (serves 4):
For the asparagus:
2kg white or violet asparagus
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp butter
For the Hollandaise:
3 very fresh egg yolks
5 tbsp white wine
2-3 tbsp lemon juice
salt and white pepper
Half a bunch of chervil (optional, and omitted from my version because I've not been able to find any)
1. Cut off the hard, woody ends of the asparagus and peel the spears. Put the peelings and ends into a wide pan and just cover with water; bring to the boil and leave to cook on a low heat for 10 minutes, then remove all the bits with a slotted spoon and discard. Now add the asparagus to your mild stock along with a teaspoon of salt, the sugar and butter and leave it to cook through gently for 10-14 minutes. The asparagus spears are ready when you can easily slide a knife through their thickest part.
2. In the meantime, wash and dry the chervil if you're using it, then pick and chop the leaves. For the Hollandaise, melt the butter in a pan on a low heat, skimming off any white foam that appears. Put the egg yolks and white wine in a stainless steel mixing bowl over a basin filled with hot water and whisk it into a foam. Add the melted butter to the egg mixture very slowly - almost drop by drop - stirring all the time, until the sauce thickens and thin ribbons form. (This is where I now divert from the recipe: I find that returning the mixture to the pan and whisking constantly over a very low heat makes the sauce thicken much more quickly and effectively than this water-bath method: see photo at the top for the very runny sauce I kept producing using the latter technique.) Stir in the lemon juice and season your Hollandaise with salt and pepper.
3. Strain the asparagus and let it dry before arranging it on plates with the sauce and chervil.
Frau Dietz's Serving Suggestion:
New potatoes, scrubbed or peeled, boiled in salty water and served with a few slices of cooked ham, taste absolutely heavenly with this. A glass of light Rheingau Riesling is compulsory: last time, we polished off the best part of bottle of Alta Villa from Weingut Koegler alongside our Spargel. Guten Appetit!