It started last month, and it only lasts through June 24: it’s Spargelzeit! Eat asparagus now, commands Françoise Poilâne… but not just anywhere.
There are three good reasons why you should take advantage of Germany’s collective lust for the white spears: they’re healthy, they’re local, they’re delicious. While the two former statements are pretty indisputable (they’re diuretic, they cleanse the body: eliminate!; Berliners, like the rest of the Teutons, swear by them: integrate!). The latter is more problematic: good, well-prepared asparagus is hard to come by.
Dubbed Zartes Elfenbein (soft ivory) by the Teutonic gourmet, they are delicate things; like ladies in the old days, they shy away from sunlight to retain their pristine whiteness. The beautiful ones are the most expensive, and unlike their green sisters from the south, they’re not easy maintenance: it’s hard to cook them right. We can’t count our disappointing experiences at local restaurants: stringy or soggy, bitter or sugared, or topped with dodgy hollandaise, a sauce so heavy and overpowering that it’d spoil the subtle flavour of the fresh shoots, even if they were cooked right anyway.
Our favourite place for Spargel cooked just right: Lebensmittel in Mitte. The small restaurant off Münzstraße is known to local lunchers for its small chalkboard menu filled with South German classics such as Leberwurst (served with delicious potato salad and a side of sweet or hot mustard, €8.50), or superior Käsespätzle (made with their signature mountain cheese and served with a side salad, €9), but also daily fish and roasts (Bavarian pork with dumplings and Sauerkraut, €9.50) and impeccable German wines to boot, all served in a pleasant, rustic grocery shop atmosphere.
The name literally translates as “groceries in Mitte” – a nod to the place’s former fresh veggie stall. They’ve removed it from the dining room, but you can still buy homemade jams, wines and schnapps by the bottle, hearty sausages from the Bavarian town of Wolframs-Eschenbach, and Swabian sourdough breads from a Friedrichshain baker.
There’s also a fun selection of southern drinks like Austrian Almdudler or Chabeso, a century old Bavarian orange-tinged lemonade from Augsburg also available as Radler (shandy). Best of all, enjoy on the spot a meal that hardly ever disappoints.
Every year we come here for the perfect Spargel, cooked al dente yet so tender to the bite you can eat them from stem to tip. Topped with clear butter and breadcrumbs – and a side of those delicious small, thin-skinned and oh-so-sweet new potatoes so much in season right now – they’re just to die for (€12, lunch; €15.50, dinner). They also come with a delicious ham from Lower Franconia (€15/17.50) or schnitzel, of course (€19/21-24 depending on size), as crispy and thin and veal-y as it should be
The snow-white spears arrive fresh daily straight from Beelitz (50km southwest of Berlin) – a small Brandenburg town so engrossed with its Spargel fame that it boasts an Asparagus-Apotheke and elects an annual asparagus queen.
The Beelitz girls are thrown in a pot with cold water, a pinch of sugar, a squeeze of lemon and a dash of white wine. Then they’re slow-cooked until perfectly tender, yet not mushy. How do they master the timing? The answer lies in all those years of practice, answer the Lebensmittel folk. One’s not born a natural asparagus cook.
Eat them with one of Lebensmittel’s many Rieslings (€4.50-8; try one of their beautiful Ayler Kupp bottles from the Saar region) – and savour one of Berlin’s most perfect Spargel experiences.
Originally published in issue #127, May 2014.