As you can imagine, I’m not a great fan of sliced bread, But please don’t dismiss my claim that there is one thing that is better than sliced bread, and that by miles, too lightly! If the whole of Germany goes insane when the first white asparagus of the season appears in the shops and market stalls, surely, it must be massive.
My friend Chrissie posted a whole series of posts on the topic – do check out her stunning pictures of piles and bunches of the stuff, as well as her – neutral and objective – accounts of the frenzy it drives us to. But the appearance of the first crates of it does mark the arrival not just of Spring, but of the ‘asparagus season’. In case you haven’t tried it, white asparagus is like the posh brother of the green: bigger, juicier and subtler in taste, it is often described as the ‘royal’ vegetable. By continually covering the shoots with soil as they are growing, they are prevented from reacting with the light and thus remain white.
The first wave of white asparagus tends to be overpriced and imported, and it does pay off to wait a little. The most prized asparagus comes from the area around Bruchsal, in Baden-Württemberg, where the soil conditions and the average temperatures create the most suitable conditions. Regardless of the changes in temperatures and the weather, the season is invariably too short and by June 24, St John’s., it is definitely over. No wonder people get restless once the first asparagus appear.
Unfortunately, Britain is not impressed. As a result, I had to go without white asparagus for many years. But luckily, we had decided to spend Easter in the beautiful town of Aachen. Wedged between Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, Aachen rose to fame as early as the Iron Age, when the Celts were drawn to its smelly hot springs. The odour of rotten eggs must have appealed to Roman tastes, too, as they built a wide range of spa-style bathing houses in the area in order to maximise the potential health benefits of the stinky hot water.
Nobody noticed, apparently. During the Middle Ages, Charlemagne made Aachen the centre of the Holy Roman Empire and gave it its impressive cathedral. In the 18th and 19th Century, Aachen became one of the most fashionable spa towns of the time: from Handel to, basically, any king, queen or celebrity of the time, they all went there. Still nobody minded the fact that the surprisingly hot springs smell of, well, rotten eggs.
The result of all this, however, is a stunning medieval city, framed by impressive fortified towers, that makes a visit well worth your time. Especially around Easter, where the scent of sulphur can easily be explained by the German tradition of hiding painted and hard-boiled eggs around the garden for the children to find. And it they are hidden too well, well …
Thankfully, the Easter Bunny didn’t make it too difficult.
After all that hard work, the parents, too, deserved their Easter treat: white asparagus. We serve it traditionally with boiled potatoes, lightly fried in a little goose fat and parsley, and warm savoury pancakes called Flädle. But the finishing touch is the Sauce Hollandaise, an incredibly silky foam that makes it easy to forget that it is made of, well, butter. And some lemon juice, which makes it almost healthy…
White Asparagus with Sauce Hollandaise (serves 4)
For the asparagus:
- 24 shoots of white asparagus (ca. 6 per head)
- 1 tbs butter
- 1 tsp salt
For the Sauce Hollandaise:
- 3 egg yolks
- 1 tbs lemon juice
- 1 tbs cold water
- 140g unsalted butter
- salt, pepper, to taste
Before you even touch the asparagus, get your side dishes started: boil the potatoes or fry the Flädle. Keep them warm in the oven, covering them in tinfoil. Don’t forget to place a large serving plate into the oven, too, to keep the asparagus warm when they are being served.
Peeling the asparagus takes a little time: using a potato peeler or a small vegetable knife, you need to remove a thin layer, starting below the tips. Cut off 1 cm or 1/2 in off the bottom – this will give you an idea of how much of the skin you need to peel off.
But don’t you worry: the peel and all will be used in due time to make the base of an equally delicious cream of asparagus soup!
Once you’re ready, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the butter and the salt. Ideally the asparagus should be boiled standing upright, only the bottom 3/4 covered in water and the tips sticking out, as they take the least time to cook.
As the asparagus is boiling (which takes around 15-20 minutes, you have time to make the sauce. To this purpose, boil a little water in a small casserole. Place a bowl or similar inside the hot water, to create a bain marie. In it, mix the egg yolks, lemon juice and water, ideally using a sick blender or hand-held mixer (the ones with the little blades). You can whisk it by hand, too, apparently, but since my trained-chef-cousin told me to use the former, I haven’t looked back.
Cut the butter into small chunks (ca. 30g each) and keep blending while adding one chunk at a time. If it gets too thick, add another 1/2 tbs cold water but keep blending. Once you’ve used up all the butter, simply season with salt and pepper. Simple.
Should, for whatever reason, the butter curdle, you can use the same trick that rescues mayonnaise to save your sauce: simply start again, using 2 egg yolks and a tbs of water, and gradually add the curdled butter, one spoonful at a time. That’ll do the trick.
Serve alongside potatoes, lightly browned in butter or goose fat and sprinkled with a little parsley, and some rolled-up Flädle pankakes, if you had the time to prepare them. Sadly, we got a bit carried away and forgot all about them…