Spargel Zeit!

There is a time in Southern Germany that is the highlight of any two weeks in a true Bavarian's calendar year. Oktoberfest, you say? The international celebration of all things oh-so-Bavarian: Beer in huge mugs, pretzels, lederhosen, and girls overflowing out of their lacy, aproned dirndls? Ah, no. Or possibly it is at Christmas time, during  Nuremburg's famous Kristkindlmarkt, where one can enjoy hot mulled wine, full of cloves and brandy, or snack on a wurstchen and a little roll while watching the snowflakes float down all around? Charming, but no, not quite. No, the time I am referring to is a time of anticipation, of rebirth and new beginnings. It's a time known fondly, simply, as Spargel-zeit.  As the time of the asparagus is painfully brief, the Bavarians celebrate it to excess for the entire fortnight or so. You know the magical time is at hand when the ladies begin whispering its predicted arrival date over their baskets at the outdoor maret in the fresh May mornings. 

"Perhaps in the next week or two, leastways that's what Frau Meier said."

"Really? Well, I've heard from Hanna that Frau Beck said it might be in as little as five days!"

Chefs and home cooks begin dreaming of recipes both new and old, and debate the merits of the arguably most perfect preparation of these tender white stalks.

Spargel
Spargel

Though it is possible to discover green asparagus here, it is far more likely that you will encounter the more delicate flavor of the white variety. You can find either type year-round in the grocery super-store, but you'll have to be content with the tinny, slightly off flavor and mushy texture that comes from  canned produce. No, best to enjoy the Spargel like a true Bavarian: seasonally, locally, preferably with hollandaise.

Ah yes, the hollandaise. While the pale yellow sauce may have originally been a French creation, I have no doubt that the Germans would take the lead in any competition of the hollandaise-making persuasion. They consume it with a staggering variety of dishes; over meats, chicken, fish, potatoes, "foreign" foods like dolmas or Spanish rice, and vegetables, of course including the near-holy asparagus. In fact, most Spargel enthusiasts will argue that a simple presentation of lightly steamed asparagus, with salt, pepper, and a generous ladling of smooth, rich hollandaise is the ultimate way to enjoy the perfection that is Spargel-zeit. 

This magical two-week mini-season is truly feted. Every restaurant of any decency will offer a special separate menu, the Spargel Karte, in addition to its regular menu.  The Spargel Karte can have as few as three or as many as thirteen items on it, all dishes featuring the glorious white asparagus. Asparagus soup, asparagus salad, asparagus pizza, asparagus with local fish, asparagus with eggs and ham, and of course, asparagus with hollandaise. 

Home cooks and hausfraus will scour the local markets every morning searching for the finest most delicate spears. Once they've selected their favorites, they'll scoop them up in kilos. With a glass of crisp riesling, or a small mug of beer, the glorious Spargel is the toast of spring. 

And then, as quick as it began, the asparagus begin to disappear from the markets, and the Spargel Karten become scarcer or with fewer selections. The time of the asparagus is over, and the Bavarian, sated and peaceful, begin to gear up for morning hikes and afternoons at the local swimming pool. The brief summer of Central Europe is at hand, hot and sticky and full of sun. Bearing the standard every year is the mighty and glorious asparagus. 

Egg Quest, Part I

I can probably trace my obsession with eggs back to my childhood summers spent deep in the heart of Bavarian farm country. Breakfasts there always included a soft boiled egg, scooped up warm right out of its shell. I was continually startled to find the bright orange yolks that tasted so different from the ones back home. And it was these rich, ridiculously fresh eggs I longed for when back in Marin County, where breakfast was a pop tart, usually inhaled in the car when rushing off to school. What I didn't know then was why these eggs were so much better than our eggs back home. Now I know that it wasn't that they were German, its that they were from chickens raised in an entirely different way from our industrialized process. Chickens here are crammed into wire cages, kept under flourescent lights and stuffed full of antibiotics and feed of questionable origin. Even our "free range" or "cage free" chickens rarely see sunshine or grass as they're packed tightly in huge barns. The pastured chicken, common throughout Germany and the not-so-distant past in the United States, eats a mixture of organic, chemical-free feed and grass. They're allowed to forage, move about individually, eat yummy grubs, and lay their eggs in peace. This is why their yolk is so rich and why their flavor is so exquisite. They're what eggs are supposed to be.

bowl of eggs

Now, I know these eggs don't just exist in Europe. They can be found here, right here in Northern California. At least I hope so. I've tried the farmer's markets in the City, and though I've found organic free range eggs, they're still not quite it. I have to go to the farm, find the source itself. The egg quest has begun. 

The best place to start seems to be Petaluma, a po-dunk town in the North Bay that is everything agrarian and quaint. It also used to be the "Chicken Capital of the World." The other day, Chris and I were up there, randomly, on a mission to find some cherries from a roadside stand. Our mission had proved, er, fruitless and we were headed back on a one-lane highway home. Suddenly I spotted a small, hand-painted sign stating "Eggs for Sale" in red paint. I instantly perked up and we turned around in search of the driveway. 

A few passes up and down the highway and we finally discovered a gravel lane with an even smaller sign, this time with just "Eggs" written on it. A short way down the lane led us to a narrow dirt driveway, marked with a sign with just a red painted arrow on it. At last here we would find some really truly farm-fresh eggs!

languid cows

We passed a few languid cows on the way in, and then we were rapidly greeted by five very vocal little dogs. Exiting the car, we spied a healthy vegetable garden with a handful of ducks waddling about. We heard the chickens before we saw them. Squawking and clucking, there they were, milling about in the coop. Utterly enchanted, I turned to Chris and breathily exclaimed, "Oh, Honey. How darling. Let's move out here and get some chickens!"

Being the imminently more sensible one of the two of us, Chris just smiled and went off in search of the proprietor of the lovely little farm so that we might purchase our eggs. I wandered about, daydreaming of my own vegetable garden and year-round sun. Rather quickly though, we soon realized no one was home. We circled the property, admiring the rusty farm equipment and an old trampoline by the fence. As the yappy dogsn hadn't ceased yapping since we'd arrived, and no one had answered our calls, we ascertained that we were alone, wandering around a stranger's property, and utterly eggless. 

First the cherries and now this! Disappointed, we piled back in the car and headed back on the long road home. Chris rationalized that we could always come back another day, or try to track down their phone number. Glumly, I agreed with him, but I couldn't help feeling like a kid who'd been promised an ice cream cone only to find the ice cream parlor was closed. Sure, they'd re-open the next day, but I wanted my ice cream now! 

This is what beautiful, fresh, delicious, humanely-produced eggs will do to me. Though I haven't found them yet, I feel very certain to very soon. The egg quest shall continue. 

Chicken coop

Butter Brezen

When the homesickness grips me, I always find that it is triggered by food-- the strange fermenting smell emanating from behind a bar that I could swear was sauerkraut, or the sound of a crusty bread being ripped apart. It is the latter that sparked today's wave of memories, though it is not actually bread that I long for. It is for authentic Bavarian pretzels slathered with rich butter. The Butterbrezen is nothing like American pretzels. It's large, perfectly salted, with an intensely crispy exterior and an inside that's billowy soft to the touch. Sliced lengthwise while still hot from the oven, with lusciously thick pats of butter stuffed between the slices, it's a butter-pretzel-salt sandwich of insane depth. 

My favorite Tante, displaying an enormous Brezel
My favorite Tante, displaying an enormous Brezel

Wrapped in wax paper, the Butterbrezen is quite a handy snack. It seems not so long ago that I was gripping one in my fingers, trying not to let the melting butter slip onto my train ticket to Straubing. The Munich Hauptbahnhof was awash with travelers, as the summer holidays in Bavaria had just begun. Jostled by the crowds, I kept a fierce grip on my snack with trying to balance myself on my improvised suitcase-seat. I still had fifteen minutes before the train was set to pull in, but I was anxious to leave the city crowds for the achingly rural small town on the Danube. I longed for the fields, the little open air market in the city square that sold all kinds of produce and little livestock, cuddly yellow baby chicks and all. I wanted to walk the safe alleyways and visit my favorite pastry shops, the glorious Konditorei of Straubing.  While Munich's crowds and wide boulevards were appealing in a different way, eventually one longs for the simplicity of the small town. Much like the Butterbrezen I was munching on, Straubing isn't made up of much. This however, makes it all the easier to thouroughly enjoy each element and notice how wonderfully they all complement one another. 

As the train whistle pierced the shouts and calls of milling travelers, I wiped the buttery crumbs from my mouth and fingers. Already I felt calmer, even in the midst of my tense excitement, the flurry of activity all around, and the everyday thrill of the two-hour journey before me. 

It is amazing to me how a simple sound or smell can trigger such distinct memories in the fleetingest of moments.