BEELITZ, Germany (Reuters) - Present a spear of finger-thick white asparagus to a German and watch their eyes light up.
Come spring-time each year Germans shed their typically sober attitude towards food to swoon over the freshness, the flavor and the girth of their asparagus.
This enthusiasm, fanned by a rising consumer appreciation of local, seasonal food, has transformed whole regions of the former East Germany in recent decades as farmers re-introduce a vegetable once viewed by the Communist authorities as a pretentious, expensive delicacy and a waste of labor and land.
Ernst-August Winkelmann grabs a handful of soil at his asparagus farm in Beelitz, 50 km (30 miles) southwest of Berlin, and allows its sandy substance to run through his fingers.
“Beelitz asparagus is really very fine. Other German asparagus is good too, but the Beelitz crop is nuttier. The soil is sandier, it grows particularly fast and is extremely tender,” he said.
At the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 just 10 hectares of land in Beelitz were dedicated to asparagus production after a long decline.
In the late 1930s, 1,000 hectares were farmed for asparagus in the area but with the outbreak of World War Two Germany’s Nazi rulers decided asparagus was not rich enough in calories to justify such labor-intensive production.
The young women of the Nazi Bund Deutscher Maedel (German girls association) who had helped pick the vegetable were sent to make armaments instead.
Fifty years of Communist rule followed for Beelitz, during which land was collectivized and farmers turned to crops deemed more essential in the “workers’ and farmers’ state” such as wheat, potatoes and corn.
But in the past 20 years production has surged again to 1,200 hectares, helped by Beelitz’s historical associations as an asparagus centre. Expansion is rising steadily each year.
Germans are famed for their love of white asparagus rather than the more common green variety. Some 90-95 percent of consumption in Germany is of white asparagus, which must be grown deep in the soil and dug out by hand.
It is backbreaking labor, and local farmers acknowledge the industry would not be where it is today without the help of thousands of Polish and Romanian seasonal workers who extract each stalk separately.
Mariusz Gancarz, a 39-year-old Pole from Ostrow, will spend two months in Beelitz at the Buschmann and Winkelmann farm picking asparagus to save for a house he is building.
“You need a certain skill to do this, and passion for the land.”
He bends over and removes heavy plastic sheeting from a soil mound, then looks for any tiny cracks in the soil, the sign of an asparagus stalk pushing up underneath. He starts to dig with a special tool, and uncovers a pert white stalk, which he cuts at a length of around 22 cm.
An experienced laborer can harvest around 20 kg an hour, but the timing must be spot on. The shoots, which can grow up to 7 cm a day in warm weather, are spoilt once they push out too far from the soil.
The finest spears -- judged to be straightest and with the most pert tips -- sell for around 9 euros ($11.49) per 1 kg.
Asparagus has been prized since ancient times for its delicate flavor and its alleged medicinal properties. It is low in calories and rich in vitamins and dietary fiber.
But as restaurants across Germany display special asparagus or Spargel menus, and wine shops peddle accompanying “Spargel” wines, some may feel the vegetable is being over-hyped - a suspicion farmers and chefs are quick to dismiss.
“Asparagus is no fashion vegetable. It is very healthy and only available for a short time in Germany. All other asparagus is imported and will have travelled a very long way by ship from South America,” said Winkelmann.
“It tastes best when it is fresh,” he said, adding that he eats 500 grams every day, or 20-30 kg a season.
The average German eats almost 2 kg a year, he says, one of the highest consumption rates in the world.
Last year Germany saw a record harvest of 103,000 metric tons (113,538 tons), as household consumption rose 7 percent. The world’s largest producers are China and Peru, which cultivate the green crop.
DON‘T BOIL TOO LONG
Aficionados may extol its healthy credentials, but white asparagus is mostly eaten in Germany drenched in butter or served with hollandaise sauce, schnitzel and a plate of potatoes.
“It is the first spring vegetable so it brings lots of positive associations,” said Stefan Pietschmann, head chef at the restaurant on the Buschmann and Winkelmann farm.
“The classics dominate - asparagus with potatoes, schnitzel, or scrambled egg. Later people start experimenting with sauces, ragouts, for example blood orange sauce, or soups, with curry or with almond for example.”
It may look easy to prepare - in boiling water with a dash of sugar and salt, but it is also easy to overcook.
“We cook it so that the spear still has some tension left within it. That gives it bite,” said Pietschmann.
Just outside Beelitz in the little hamlet of Schlunkendorf, 63-year-old Manfred Schmidt, who says he “lives for Spargel”, has set up a museum dedicated to the vegetable in the cottage where he was born.
On display are some of the grand serving plates once used for asparagus, reflecting its former reputation as an elite vegetable for the gentry, as well as some of the curious tools used to extract it.
Schmidt, who grows his own small crop and experiments with different species of asparagus in quest of the perfect taste, is proud of the way asparagus production has returned to its former glory in Beeltiz. But he has lost a valuable bartering tool.
“People only ate around 200 grams of Spargel a year in East Germany. So giving away a bunch of Spargel was a great way for getting my Trabant car fixed,” he said.
Editing by Gareth Jones and Paul Casciato