If you're studying German on Duolingo, perhaps you've noticed how much asparagus content is in the course:
It might be puzzling that you'd learn the word Spargel (asparagus) so early on, but there's no need to be perplexed: Asparagus is truly venerated in German-speaking Europe!
Spargelzeit: the most wonderful time of the year
Not only is Germany the world’s fourth largest producer of the vegetable, its harvest season—Spargelzeit—is a cultural phenomenon. When I was 19 and living in Germany, I, too, was perplexed on a seemingly insignificant day in mid-April when suddenly stands popped up everywhere selling asparagus. Chalkboards in front of restaurants advertised asparagus smothered in hollandaise sauce, asparagus with ham and potatoes, and asparagus soup. But it wasn’t the green asparagus that I was used to in the U.S.—it was the superbly tender white asparagus that needs peeling before eating.
Some regions are known for their asparagus-growing. Tiny towns like Beelitz have asparagus festivals that draw 30,000 people to see a local woman crowned Spargelkönigin (asparagus queen). Schwetzingen in Baden-Württemberg crowns its own Spargelkönigin, and there you can also take a tour with a Spargelfrau (literally, "asparagus woman"): a historical reenactor who plays the part of an asparagus seller. (Look for the statue dedicated to her downtown!) While there, you can also learn how to properly harvest asparagus and earn a Spargelstechdiplom (asparagus-harvesting diploma)—which is bestowed by the Spargelkönigin herself! It’s no wonder that Schwetzingen’s town motto is Barock, Spargel, Kultur (Baroque, Asparagus, Culture).
Schwetzingen hasn’t cornered the market for asparagus statues, unsurprisingly. If you want to see another statue venerating the fine folks who harvest and sell asparagus, check out the Spargelbrunnen (asparagus fountain) in Nienberg in Lower Saxony—it's a working fountain that cleverly integrates the washing and preparation of asparagus. Of course, you’d better then take a quick five-minute walk down Neue Straße to visit the town’s Spargelmuseum—the asparagus museum, naturally.
All good things must come to an end
Then, just as suddenly as it arrived, on Johannistag (St. John the Baptist’s Day, on June 24), the asparagus stands disappear and the festivals stop. There's an old tradition in Germany of aligning gardening benchmarks with saints’ days on the calendar! With modern refrigeration and transport, we can buy fruits and vegetables nearly whenever we want them, and as a result, we aren’t as dependent on (or even aware of!) when fruits and vegetables are actually in season.
Holding strong to the Spargelzeit means that there is a greater cultural appreciation for savoring the flavors of the season when they are at their most abundant and most delicious. And it’s not only asparagus either!
A calendar full of delicious seasons
Just as Spargelzeit is ending, Pfifferlingszeit is just beginning: It’s time to head into the woods and hunt the chanterelle mushroom! This tiny mushroom is bursting with flavor, even though Germans say that something is keinen Pfifferling wert (not worth a dime)—literally, not worth a chanterelle mushroom!
Next is Pflaumenzeit (plum season) from August to September when bakeries are bursting with Pflaumenkuchen (plum cake), and that’s followed by Federweißer-Zeit (literally "feather-white season") when the new wine is a bit more than grape juice but not completely full-on wine yet—a fizzy, refreshing early fall drink.
When vegetables are picked for winter storage, everyone knows it's Sauregurkenzeit (pickled cucumber season). But, learner beware: It’s also the word used to describe the lazy, dog days of summer or slow news days.
In German, to everything there is a season
There’s an ephemeral beauty to seasonal eating. It’s good to rotate what you’re eating through the year and to rely on what’s in season locally to dictate what’s on your plate. These things provide a natural rhythm to life—rhythms as natural as an in-breath and an out-breath, the sun rising and setting. They provide our bodies and minds with rhythms that are familiar. So, savor every Zeit you learn in your German lessons!