When spring finally hits Berlin, what people here are most excited for isn’t lush grass tickling along the banks of the Canal or bright bouquets of flowers filling every market stall, but the piles of white asparagus cropping up on grocery store shelves around the country. Spargelzeit is here.
I must admit, I’m not immune to the fever. Unlike the brisk, verdant crunch of green asparagus, white asparagus is surprisingly sweet and just this side of mellow – a perfect template for its traditional accompaniments of hollandaise or browned butter, salty prosciutto and creamy boiled new potatoes with parsley.
Last weekend, I took a stroll through our neighborhood Spargel Festival. It wasn’t much – just a few small stands set up around the fountain in the Rathaus Park. There were a few odd participants – a political cluster with competing parties and pamphlets, the boy scouts with their tipi set up on the lawn – but for the most part, it was full of typical German street festival fare: Thüringer Bratwurst and Knackerwurst, Flammkuchen (wood-fired flatbreads typically topped with crème fraîche, onions, and lardons), grilled pork steaks stuffed inside crusty bread rolls… and at the asparagus festival, of course, asparagus.
There’s something provincial about these neighborhood street fairs, even in a big city like Berlin. They’re different from the citywide festivals, like May 1st or the upcoming Carnival of Cultures, where there are rows upon rows of carts, stands, and foldable tables set up selling edibles of every kind on disposable plates. There might be a euro deposit on that caipirinha everyone seems to be carting around, but what’s one euro lost on a plastic cup when the crowd has carried you down the long, muggy line of revelry from one end to the other?
At the Asparagus Festival, the asparagus tent served classically-prepared asparagus with accoutrements on real plates with real silverware. Beside it, the bar served sparkling rosés and whites in pretty, polished stemware alongside steins of frothy beer. There were large wooden tables set up, and the people who sat there eating looked as though they’d settled in for the long haul, talking and laughing as scattered drizzles of rain skimmed overhead. It really felt like community.
I bought two kilos of white asparagus from a farmer in a truck, and took it home for dinner – that night, a white asparagus soup, soft and rich with heavy cream.
And for lunch the next day: pizza with shaved white asparagus, crispy pancetta cubes, red and green onions, and heaps of grated parmesan.
I love white asparagus raw, when it still retains some of that lingering bitterness beneath the sweetness. It’s perfect on pizza, where it’s just barely baked, and where its flavor comes alive in every topping-laden bite.
You can never get enough – and that’s what Spargelzeit is all about.
White Asparagus and Pancetta Pizza
At this time of year, white asparagus is everywhere in Germany. But since it’s not as popular in other parts of the world, green asparagus can just as easily be substituted. The recipe for pizza dough originally appeared in this post about visiting the Baltic Sea. Serves 4.
For the pizza crust:
1 ¼ cups warm water
1 ½ tsp. active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. olive oil
For the toppings:
2 large handfuls white asparagus
1 cup cubed pancetta (or ½ cup chopped bacon strips)
1 red onion, sliced
½ cup sliced green onions
1 cup grated parmesan
Salt & pepper, to taste
Pour warm water into a small bowl and add yeast and sugar. Break up any yeast lumps, then allow to sit for about 5 minutes. There should be small bubbles on the surface of the mixture, but don’t despair if there aren’t. It just means your yeast is less potent than it could be and your dough will take on a denser, more flatbread-like quality when you bake it. Which can be good, too.
Sift flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour yeast mixture and 2 tbsp. olive oil into the well, and mix with a wooden spoon until a shaggy dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead vigorously for 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth, springy, and elastic.
Shape into a ball, then place dough into a bowl. Rub with 1 tbsp. olive oil. Lay a clean cloth over the bowl and let rise in a warm place for 1 ½ hours.
In the meantime, prepare your toppings. Unlike green asparagus, white asparagus has a woody layer that needs to be peeled away. You can tell by feel whether you’ve gotten it al – a properly peeled asparagus stalk is smooth, slick and damp. After you’ve peeled the asparagus, pick up your peeler once again and shave the stalks into thin strips.
In a skillet, cook pancetta or bacon. Set aside.
When you’re ready to make pizzas, divide the dough into two equal pieces. Take one of the halves and quickly knead it on a floured surface. Roll it out to about 1/8th-inch thickness. Sprinkle the dough with flour if it starts to stick.
Transfer the rolled-out dough to a baking sheet and add shaved asparagus, pancetta, red onion, green onion, and parmesan. Season with salt and pepper, then bake in a 480º F (250º C) oven for about 10 minutes, until the crust has just started to brown.