Saturday, April 12, 2014

Asparagus Season in Switzerland

Springtime is a magical season. It’s a time when young verdant shoots thrust up from the ground in a vibrant riot of pink, lavender and yellow. When orchards and forests burst into a riot of vibrant color.

In Switzerland—a land of dairy farms, milk, fine cheeses and chocolate—spring also heralds one of Nature’s most elegant culinary delights: the white asparagus, nicknamed “white gold” by continental northern Europeans, who are strong seasonal followers for local asparagus.

Nina and I were driving through Switzerland in April, at the height of “spargelzeit”—when chefs from all over the world import white asparagus from Germany, Switzerland and France—and practically every restaurant we dined in offered its own dish of white asparagus. Dishes varied from exquisite cream soup, to grilled, boiled or steamed and served with Hollandaise, Café de Paris sauce, or melted butter. We were in asparagus heaven!

The white asparagus is considered milder and more tender than the green asparagus and coveted by restaurants as the epitome of gourmet food during its season (April to June). White asparagus needs a specific combination of soil, temperature and rain to develop its perfect taste. Dirt is mounded around the emerging stalk, keeping out the light and the plant from producing chlorophyll, which makes a plant green.

Asparagus is neither overwhelming or bland; yet, its taste defies description. When asked to describe the taste of this elegant vegetable, most people stumble with inadequate words and metaphor appears to work best. One friend tried by describing what asparagus is not: such as sweet or sharp. When Nina pressed her, she described it as clear”, an interesting term that resonated with a truth of sorts. Asparagus was used from early times as a vegetable and medicine, owing to its delicate flavor and diuretic properties. It has anti-oxidant properties, can help prevent heart disease, stroke, possibly cancer and helps prevent tiredness. Asparagus was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, who ate it fresh when in season and dried the vegetable for use in winter.

Asparagus is low in calories and sodium and contains no cholesterol. It’s a great source of vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium and zinc, and a very good source of dietary fibre, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, rutin, niacin, folic acid, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese and selenium. The amino acid asparagine gets its name from asparagus.

Lake Lucerne
I didn’t mind that Nina got us thoroughly lost driving through the Swiss Alps (well, we weren’t ever really lost—I had the map). It seemed that at every winding turn through scenic alpine “wilderness” a tiny village emerged, and we found a restaurant or café that offered something with asparagus. Besides the obligatory café crème, we always ordered a dish with asparagus. We experienced an exquisite Chateau Briand a l'argenteuil, (accompanied by asparagus and named after the French village of Argenteuil, renowned for its asparagus). The asparagus was steamed with a delicate Hollandaise sauce (Asperges a la sauce Hollandaise) prepared by Werner Meier, chef of the Swiss Chalet, the gourmet restaurant of the Schloss Hotel, in Merlischachen (near Lucerne).  The asparagus paired wonderfully with the robust Speri Amarone, a spicy rich and aromatic wine that lingered on the palate to form a complex and zesty marriage with the asparagus.

Priska and Toulouse at the Gasthaus-Strauee
On one of our drives along the southern shore of Lake Lucerne, we discovered Rotschno, nestled in the craggy shoreline of the lake. Our waiter, Carsten, served us a Gebratenes Kalbsteak mit einer Sauce Hollandaise an frischen Spargel mit jungen Kartoffeln in der Schale (46 FCH), veal steak and asparagus with Hollandaise sauce and young potatoes. We paired our meal with a hearty German wheat beer, a Hacker-Pschorr Weissebeir.

Many times our asparagus experience consisted of a version of “spargel crèmesuppe”. We were first introduced to spargel crèmesuppe by Werner Meier, chef of the Swiss Chalet, who surprised us with a tiny “Toulouse-size” cup at the beginning of the meal. Thick, faintly olive green and garnished with a froth of crème and parsley leaves, the soup was just enough to delight and tease the palate for more. Its faint earthy aroma filled my nose with the wholesome elegance of Mother Nature Herself and delighted my palate like the gentle kiss of Gaia the noble goddess of the Earth. What better way to celebrate the season of spring and the awakening of the Earth! We enjoyed the soup so much that the next day we ordered a full bowl each to go along with our escargots (another post!) and Speri 2005 Amarone wine.

One afternoon as we drove along one lane country roads just east of Baar, we came across the village of Schönenberg and stumbled upon a wonderful hotel/restaurant run by Rita Blōsch, owner and chef of the Rössli. Rita apprenticed for twenty years as a chef before purchasing the Rössli. She is known for her fine grilled meats and barbeques and her inn is always packed with local farmers who like her beer and the ambience of the stüblies; but, it was her spargel crèmesuppe mit spargel stuckchen (9.50 FCH) that particularly delighted our palates. As with the Swiss Chalet in Merlischachen, Rita’s soup was elegantly creamy with a full aromatic body that went extremely well with the buttery joyful Oeil-de-Perdrix Rosé de Pinot Noir we ordered to accompany it. On another day, we returned to Rita’s restaurant and feasted on schweinsfilets an morchelrahm sauce mit spargeln und neue Bratkartoffeln (40 FCH), pork filets with morel sauce, steamed asparagus and baked new potatoes.

On yet another excursion to the mountains—this time to a “hidden lake valley” of enchanted forests and breathtaking views of craggy snow-covered mountains—we discovered a jewel: the Gasthaus StausseSee in Innerthal on the shores of the tourquise-colored Wagertaler See. After several café crèmes (perhaps the best coffee I have ever tasted—and I’ve been to Paris!) Nina and I ordered the spargel crèmesuppe to go with our open-faced mozzarella-tomato sandwich and salad. We were delightfully surprised when Priska came with a huge bowl of thick soup. Was it the fresh alpine air? The breathtaking view? Nina’s jokes? This soup appeared thicker and nuttier and more vigorously earthy. Its exquisite aroma sprang out with an elegant clarity that spoke of snow-covered mountains and the bracing breeze off an alpine lake.

Wine pairing with asparagus: Most suggest a Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. "Brooklynguy" says, "The biggest mistake is to pair asparagus with a fruit-driven wine, which means avoiding most American wine, and most new world win in general. Asparagus are the anti-fruit, and they don't work well with fruity wine. Please, whatever you do, be very careful mixing asparagus with rose wine." Nina and I proved that a carefully chosen rose can provide a wonderful complementary pairing with asparagus. The take-home message is, be imaginative and adventurous. Try different wines you like.

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