Sunday, June 20, 2010

Spargel: Germany's White Asparagus

Fresh green and white asparagus, unpeeled and uncooked

Spargel season in Germany is short-lived, but millions of people rush out to restaurants with great anticipation and to the markets and roadside stands to buy it to cook at home.  We all wait for it!  It is one of the wonderful specialties of spring.  By regulation, German asparagus will only be served fresh in restaurants and Gasthaüser from about April 23rd to about June 23rd.  After that last date, you will no longer find it on a menu as a fresh offering.  Of course, you can still grow it and you can buy it, though not for much longer as, like rhubarb, the plant becomes past its prime and it also needs to rebuild food reserves for production the following year.

Green asparagus is also a specialty of spring and that is the most known type in North America.  It is also well known in Europe, but it's the white everyone in Germany awaits.  France, Italy and Spain are also known for their white asparagus.  The green and the white are actually from the same plant.  It is just how they are grown and when and how they are harvested that makes them different.  The plant one grows for the green is generally just planted in a flat bed and allowed to grow above the ground and turn green before it is cut.  Those growing a plant as white asparagus grow them in raised beds (in Germany one sees huge fields of long rows of raised soil).  They are not allowed to see the light of day.

 At right, peeled, uncooked fresh asparagus

When harvest approaches, the farmers are out every day at first light cutting the Spargel just as the tips come to the surface.  Throughout the season workers will be seen scanning the fields and cutting.  They use a special tool for that, called a Spargelstecher, a foot-long rod with a knife-like cutting end.

The stalks are cut off below the surface with the root left untouched (the root is left untouched with green asparagus as well).  Because the asparagus never sees light, the color is white.  If it grows above the soil before it is cut, then it will have a slight yellow or purplish color.  Those are considered second class.  Only the white and the straightest are sold as first class.

On the right, a Spargel field at the end of the producing season with stalks allowed to come to the surface.  They will not be used.  This field is less than ten minutes from home.

A few years ago we rarely saw farm stands in our area selling white asparagus (or green either for that matter), though the markets and the grocery stores did.  Now we are seeing it everywhere, even in our village just down the road.  It has certainly brought the price of fresh asparagus down as we no longer get it just from specialized areas.  For the consumer it is great.  Perhaps not so great for the areas that earlier were the main producers.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s white asparagus mostly came from four well-known growing areas in Germany:  Schwetzingen, near Heidelberg, in our province of Baden-Württemberg; north of Munchen (Munich) in Bayern (Bavaria); the Bodensee region (Lake Constance) in southern Germany and the Lüneburger Heide area in northern Germany.  In the last few years asparagus fields have sprouted up everywhere in our own region.

At left below, fresh strawberries topped with whipped cream and wild strawberries from outside our door.

Wherever you see long, raised rows covered in plastic in spring, that will usually mean asparagus.  That plastic covering is new in the last twenty years and helps to protect the beds from the weather and especially from the cold in early spring.  During the harvest, they will be removed.

Farmers and gardeners also cover strawberries with the plastic as well, as it is in season at the same time and is often the dessert at the "Spargel Essen" table.
(Spargel Essen means an asparagus meal or to eat asparagus.)

Green asparagus has a stronger taste than the white and is usually served as a vegetable side dish, while white asparagus, which is milder, is the focus of the meal and the highlight.  It is all about the Spargel.  Everything else is secondary.

 Below, a platter of freshly cooked white asparagus.

This year we have had three Spargel dinners at home.  A few years ago we usually enjoyed it at a Gasthaus as many still do, but these days we generally cook it ourselves.  It isn't just the asparagus itself that we look forward to each spring, but to all that accompanies it and makes it such a special meal.  The main reason we have it at home is that we think it is better:  we can eat as much or as little as we like, and we can have all the extras that are traditionally part of it.

The traditional Spargel dinner is shown opposite.  It includes three types of Schinken (ham), new boiled potatoes, Kratzete (crepes) and hollandaise sauce, all as accompaniments to the main dish:  the white asparagus.  With this dinner we had a bottle of Fürst von Metternich Riesling Sekt.  It was excellent with the dinner.


Here is what you will usually see on a restaurant or Gasthaus menu:  a pound of Spargel per person (a lot and more than I can eat, but most people want that); hollandaise sauce; new boiled potatoes or Kratzete and either one or two types of Schinken or three types (smoked, unsmoked and slightly smoked).  If you wish all, you will pay extra for each addition.

Kratzete are crepes that are cut into strips, pulled into pieces or left whole and rolled up when served.  It is my favourite part of the meal and it wouldn't be a "Spargel Essen" for me without them.  Not that I wouldn't enjoy the dinner without it, but it wouldn't be the same.  Along with hollandaise sauce, it is what I wait for each year.  Yes, we could make crepes and hollandaise sauce any time, but the Spargel, of course, is what makes it all so perfect a meal.

On the plate below, Spargel (asparagus), Kratzete (crepes), two types of Schinken (ham), a boiled new potato and hollandaise sauce.

Not everyone wants the Kratzete or even the hollandaise sauce, though they are nearly always offered in Baden-Württemberg.  In 1991 we were in the former East Germany in May; it was the year after German reunification.  We had been there in 1990 as well, but not in springtime.  Driving through the countryside east of Berlin, we came across a small restaurant with tables set outside.  Spargel was advertised.  We stopped and enjoyed a wonderful meal.  Northeastern Germany is known for its potatoes and they were excellent.  So was the Spargel.  Here, they didn't serve hollandaise sauce; instead, they simply served melted butter.  That is the custom there, which Hans remembered from his childhood.  Monika, a friend of ours, always serves hers with Kraütersauce (herb sauce).  We like it all ways but hollandaise is our favourite.

Dinner at left with the hollandaise kept hot in a sauce boat.

Years ago, Hans organized "Spargel Essen" evenings for Canadian friends and colleagues.  Normally we would have about 30 people joining in on a Saturday night.  Most years he organized at least two of these evenings.

One of the chefs, Herr Rosen, a great cook, put on nights to remember, with all the traditional food, side dishes and extras.  At the time, we paid around 18 Deutsch Mark per person--expensive even then--but much cheaper than at other restaurants at that time (and cheaper than we realized before the Euro came into being!).

About five years ago, Hans' son and family flew over from Canada in the spring.  Hans organized another dinner, this time at a local Gasthaus we frequent, whose chef/owner and a friend, Martin Grimm, is also a great cook.  The cost then was about Euro 18, double the price compared to the Mark.  One pays that today in a regular Gasthaus; more in a restaurant and only for the normal offering, not for any of the extras.

A good wine is also important to serve with white asparagus.  One of the best we've had is a Nobling, the grape grown in the Margräferland, a region located between the city of Freiburg and the Swiss border, about 40 minutes south of us.  It is  perfect with Spargel.

Another we like very much is Scheurebe, another grape type; though not common in our area, some is grown.  One of the best Scheurebes in our opinion comes from the Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate), the largest wine-growing region in Germany and about two hours northwest of us.  Both these wines are strong in flavor so they vie well with the strong-flavored asparagus.

Most people recommend a good Riesling and this year we did have a very nice one.  It was flavorful, which is important.  Some Rieslings are too dry and without enough flavor, so therefore are too weak in comparison to the asparagus.  The one we had is at right and was a 1997 Baron de Hoen Riesling from the Alsace in France.

A Note:  We have tried freezing white asparagus and it freezes well.  Just peel the fresh asparagus as you would normally do if cooking it right away.  Place it in a plastic zip-lock bag or plastic container and place it in the freezer immediately.  Don't cook it first.  To eat it later, place the frozen asparagus into boiling water and cook until it is tender.  Check for readiness as you don't want it to be overcooked.  It won't be quite as good as having it from fresh asparagus, but it's still very enjoyable.  See the method below for cooking fresh asparagus.

To Cook White Asparagus (Hans' method)

1.  First, white asparagus must be peeled and it is necessary to peel it well.  As Hans says, it is better to peel it too much than not enough.  If not enough, it will be tough and stringy.  Peel from the tip down towards the bottom end.  (As shown on the left.)

2.  Fill a tall pot with water, enough so that it will cover the asparagus except for the tips, which should stand above the water; bring the water to a boil (before placing the asparagus in the pot.)

3.  Add about a tablespoon of sugar and half a tablespoon of salt to the water; the amount depends on how much asparagus and water you use.  Hans usually cooks about 750 grams or a bit more for the two of us.  Others add a chunk of butter as well.  Hans doesn't add any butter; instead he adds it to the Spargel after it is placed on the serving platter.

 4.  Stand the asparagus upright in the pot.  If you don't have a tall one, tie the asparagues so that they will stay upright--tips facing upwards--in the large pot you use.  We have a Spargeltopf--a pot with a basket--used for cooking asparagus.  (We also use it for cooking spaghetti.)  Spargel must be cooked with the cover on.

5.  Let the asparagus simmer well for 15 to 20 minutes.  Hans suggests checking for tenderness with a fork (gently) as you would for potatoes, or you can check with the tip of a sharp knife.  You can also remove a spear when you think it is ready and bite into it.  You want the asparagus to be tender but not overcooked or underdone.

6.  When it is tender, remove it to a serving platter.  Serve it with hollandaise sauce, along with new potatoes, crepes and ham-- smoked and unsmoked.  (New potatoes should be boiled with the skins on and peeled hot just before serving.)

A tip:  Use the peelings and a few stalks of fresh asparagus to make a stock for asparagus soup.  That is what I did recently.  See below.

Guten Appetit!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Green Soup, Waffles and French Fries: My Belgian Years

We were posted to 1 Fighter Wing, Marville, France with the RCAF in 1961.  The old town of Marville is located on a hill not far from Longuyon, in the northeastern province of Lorraine.  The base was a few miles west of Marville and about 20 kilometers from the Belgian border.  The majority of Canadians lived in huge apartment complexes in Longuyon.  We wanted to live "on the economy" as we called it.  Like many others, we wanted to live in Belgium, as it was a bit ahead of northern France at that time in housing and general living style.

The picture at right is of the entrance to the base, RCAF Marville.

Note:  Nearly all the pictures--not including the food-- were taken in the 1960s and one from 1985 via slides.  I had them developed as photographs and then took the pictures of the photographs with my digital camera.  I also took pictures of other photographs I had.  Many are in black and white (some of them postcards).  Click on any picture to enlarge it and to clarify it.  Just click on the arrow at the top of the page to return to the blog.

Below is a view of the Canadian PMQs (married quarters) in Longuyon, France in the 1960s.

We found a small, furnished second-floor apartment within a family home in Virton, Belgium, about 26 kilometers north of the base (about six kilometers north of the French/Belgian border) in the famous Ardennes Forest region.  We had only two large rooms and they included a combination living room/dining room/kitchen and one bedroom.  The modern bathroom was down the hall.  In the warm seasons, the children slept in a small curtained alcove outside the living room area; in winter, they had their beds in our room.

Our kitchen held a sink (no hot water, just cold) and a wood and coal stove, on which we not only heated our water but did all the cooking.  The oven was just large enough for a turkey at Christmas.  Others we knew had to take theirs to the bakery or butcher shop to be roasted, which was common then.  We shared a fridge with our landlords, the Adams.  It was new.  I  remember seeing only milk, butter and meat in it belonging to them.  They were not used to fridges yet.

To do the laundry, I walked through Madame's kitchen in the rear of the house to an unheated stone room; lovely in summer, cold in winter.  The washing machine was electric but the water was heated by gas.  To start the process, I first had to light a wick underneath the machine to light the gas to heat the water.  None of these inconveniences bothered me in the least.  I was thrilled to be in Europe and I was young, so I did not mind any of the less-than-perfect amenities.
 The picture below shows a view of the town of Virton

 The Adams treated us wonderfully, sharing their culture and special holidays--such as Christmas and Easter--with us.  They also shared their food on many occasions and one of the dishes Madame served was "la soupe verte," a specialty in that particular region.  All the Canadians we knew learned about that green soup from their Belgian landlords.  Madame Adam had it simmering on the back of her coal and wood stove every single day, and every evening meal began with it.  The aroma from that soup wafting into the hallway was welcoming indeed as we climbed the stairs to our apartment at the end of a day.

They invited us to supper one night, and that is when we were introduced to the soup.  I have never seen a recipe for it and have never seen the soup anywhere else but there.  It was darkish green in colour and thick.  With it she served a hearty bread from the bakery just off the market square.  We began buying our own bread there as well.

Below is the narrow cobble-stoned street off the market square.  The bakery was on the left side, almost across from the car in the picture.

Madame told me exactly how she made her soup.  At the time, I didn't write it down.  I did that a few years later.  I made it many times over the years and it came pretty close to Mme Adam's.  I changed the way of doing it a little, but it is still much as she made it. 

Last week I made Madame's soup and enjoyed it almost as much--along with a good bread.  I was unable, of course, to buy the Belgian bread to accompany it.  I did the next best thing and bought the best bread in the world from Herr Burger, the baker in Biederbach, where we go nearly every second Saturday afternoon for a visit.  See it below.

Below, my just-cooked green soup, Herr Burger's sliced bread (perfect with it), butter and a glass of wine.

Here is Madame's recipe for green soup:

La Soupe Verte (Belgian Green Soup) a la Madame Adam

2 bunches of leeks (4 per bunch, with an outer leaf or so removed); 1 whole head of celery, with leaves; 1 onion, peeled and sliced; about 6 tablespoons butter; 1-ounce piece of salt pork or smoked bacon fat; 8 to 10 cups good-quality chicken stock; 1 bunch of parsley, with stems removed and discarded; 4 to 5 medium potatoes (7 small), peeled and quartered; salt and pepper to taste. Optional:  A sprinkle of Fondor or similar seasoning and some splashes of Maggi.  Toppings or Additions:  Creme fraiche or whipping cream.

Slice into half-inch (1 cm) rings the white part of the leeks and the green part immediately after the white.  (The remaining green portion can be used for something else.)  Wash again thoroughly.  Wash the celery and leaves; remove the leaves and set aside; cut the celery into half-inch (1 cm) pieces.

Melt the butter and salt pork in a large soup pot.  Add the leeks, celery pieces and sliced onion and saute them, uncovered, in the melted fat until soft and aromatic, about 20 to 25 minutes.  Meanwhile, chop the celery leaves somewhat and chop the parsley coarsely.  When the vegetables are soft, add the chicken stock, stirring it well.  Add celery leaves and parsley.  Bring to a boil over medium to high heat; then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for one and a half to two hours, until everything is tender and the stock is full of flavour, adding the potatoes about 30 to 40 minutes before the soup is ready.  Partially cool.

When cool enough, strain it through a sieve, as Mme Adam did, or blend it, as I now do.  Because this soup should be fairly thick, I blend the entire amount, doing it in stages so as not to overflow the blender.  Pour it into a large pot, heat it again and season to taste with salt and pepper.  I add some Fondor and a little Maggi.  If wished, you can stir in some fresh cream or creme fraiche before ladling it into soup bowls, although Mme Adam did not do that.  You can instead add a dollop of creme fraiche or whipped cream to the soup bowl before serving.  Add a sprig of parsley for contrast.  This soup, along with hearty bread, is a meal in itself.  Great on a cold winter night--or even on a spring evening.

The soup just poured into the bowl with whipped cream melting on top.

The Adams also initiated us into the world of red wine.  Up until then I had found all wine either sour or too sharp.  We were introduced to a wine that changed all of that.  It was one Monsieur Adam brought up from his wine cellar.  That cellar must have had hundreds of bottles, all on their sides in individual little caves in the stone wall.  I have forgotten the year of the wine but it was at least ten years old at that time, so it must have been from the early 1950s, perhaps even the late 1940s.  It was a red Burgundy from the Cote de Nuits, a Chambolle Musigny.  That wine was so smooth with no sharpness at all--just a lovely taste on the tongue and palate.  I learned then that one should be initiated with a good wine, not a mediocre one.

During our last two and a half years in Belgium, we lived in Lamorteau, the border town, as we needed more room for the children.  We didn't lose contact with the Adams, though, and visited often and later kept in touch for many years.

In our new place, we had a fully furnished apartment with our own washer, gas stove and fridge.  Good friends lived in the apartment below.  Our landlords, the Toussaints, lived in the house next door, all of it (including ours and the barn), one-connected building, as is often the case in Europe.  This had been a chateau at one time, though more a country manor house from its style.

A view of  Monsieur and Madame Toussaints's house (ours is to the left and hidden) with the small river passing beside it.  We were told that Marie Antoinnette had stayed here overnight enroute to or from France.

During our time it was a working farm with cattle, geese, ducks and chickens, so our children were introduced to these animals daily, including brand new calves and chicks and ducklings.

Our house faced the side of the stone church that bordered the farmyard.  Just around the corner was a small bridge crossing a narrow river, with a bakery and a hair salon on the other side of it and a grocery store just beyond them.  By this time our two children were speaking French and often went to the store or bakery for us.  No worries back then for children out playing.

To the right is a postcard showing the stone church. Our house is just to the right of  the white building and facing the church.

A winter scene in 1963.  The bakery and hair dresser are both on the corner with the river flowing beneath the road (bridge).  The church and our house are just out of sight on the right side.

Lamorteau was a small village and years later, when Hans and I returned on a visit, it hadn't changed other than all the cattle dunghills were no longer in sight.  In this part of Belgium and all over northern France that is where you found them--outside the barns, almost next to their front doors.  The backyard is where their gardens were.  Today, things have changed in both Belgium and France.  Driving through the area on that visit in 1985 and again a few years later, it was quite amazing and pleasing to see flower gardens and grass instead along the streets.  For many years now communities all over France have been vying  for the stars given each year for especially lovely flowers and gardens in the villages, towns and cities.  The signposts on entering a community show how many--if any--stars they've received.  As this can be a draw for tourists, it does encourage towns to participate.

The picture below, taken in 1985, shows our house, the one with the red geraniums in the windows.  Just to the left was our garage.  To the right, is the Toussaint's house.  Across from our house, is the side of the church.

One of the things Madame Toussaint made was "gaufrettes" or waffles.  She would cook them in her waffle iron, open her kitchen window outwards and call the children.  She would then lean out to give each a warm waffle, sprinkled with icing sugar.  That was a real treat and all of them loved them.

Years later, in the early 1990s, I attended the Dijon Food Fair in Burgundy with a friend.  One of the booths at the fair was making waffles, triggering that Lamorteau memory.  Lillian and I had one each.  First, hot from the waffle iron, the baker spread them with a rich chocolate sauce and then slathered them with whipped cream.  Oh, how delicious they were!  It brought back those years in Belgium and those other hot waffles, simpler and made by a farm woman in her kitchen--but no less memorable.

This week I decided to make them myself.  The picture at right shows a waffle topped with Canadian maple syrup (Ahorn-Sirup in German) which I bought at a supermarket here.  That is a product that wasn't seen in Germany that long ago.

 Below are two small dessert waffles.  I covered them with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a drizzle of extra chocolate on top and added four strawberries to each.  These were rich, sweet and delicious.  Almost as good as the one in Dijon. 

One of the most famous foods in the world is French fries--or pommes frites as they are called in Belgium and France.  In Germany they are as well, but often they are just called "Pommes" (pronounced pom ess).  Belgium is renowned for their frites.  When we first moved to Belgium in 1961, we soon found out how good they were.  Not, of course, good for you, but oh-so-good to eat!  It was common to take a large empty bowl to the cafe in downtown Virton (only a two-or three-minute car drive from our house) and ask them to fill it with pommes frites to take home for supper.  They were crisp and delicious.  They cost about the equivalent of 25 to 50 Canadian cents for a full bowl, with more than enough for four.

Below, a bowl of freshly made French fries or pommes frites that I made for supper last evening.

Friends Chris and Filiep, along with their two sons and Filiep's mother, Jenny Vercruysse, drove down to our area to celebrate New Year's Eve about three years ago.  Chris and Filiep lived near Ramstein, Germany and Jenny near Bruges in Belgium.

Over dinner at a Gasthaus the next evening, we discussed pommes frites at length.  Jenny was born and raised in Belgium and told us there is a trick to making good ones.  This is how she makes "frites maison" (home-style French fries):

Belgian-Style French Fries a la Jenny Vercruysse

Cut peeled potatoes into strips.  Soak them in ice-cold water (I add ice cubes to the water) until the starch has been removed from them (draining the water and replacing it with more ice cold water) for 30 minutes to an hour.  Remove them from the water and dry them well.  That is important.  Set them on paper towels.

First frying:  Deep fry them in batches in hot peanut oil, at 340F (170C), for 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the size of the chips and the type of potatoes used.  They should be soft to the touch but still white, not browned at all.  Drain them well and allow them to cool.

Second frying:  Before serving them, deep fry them again in the oil at 350F to 375F (180C to 190C) until golden.  Note:  Jenny says that peanut oil is important and the temperature is important for both fryings.

Our landlady in Belgium also used peanut oil, though I never asked her how she made her pommes frites.  I just ate and enjoyed them, recognizing that they were special.  When you want French fries on the spur of the moment, this method would be too time-consuming; if you plan ahead, though, you can have the potatoes ready a few hours earlier--except for the frying. 

My supper last evening:  Jenny's pommes frites, fresh tomatoes, and German marinated ribs with a North American, freshly made barbecue sauce.   One of my favourite meals!

Bon Appetit!