Still Life with Asparagus (and Silvaner)

A strange spring, and a surprise at the market and in the glass

Last April, there wasn’t a lot to look forward to. No baseball, all the public parks had been shuttered, and our local Saturday farmers market were closed. Yet on one anxious, tense, and sanitizer-soaked foray out of isolation for food, I did manage to discover something unexpected and happy. Poking out near the fresh strawberries, snap peas, and spring onions I found perfect, plump spears of white asparagus.

Now, white asparagus might not be as rare or exotic as, say, a white tiger. But neither is it exactly typical to find in my suburban produce store. On the few occasions I’ve eaten white asparagus, it’s been mostly in Germany, where the spring Spargel harvest is a buzzy, much-anticipated tradition. Spargelzeit brings asparagus festivals and asparagus queens and pop-up roadside stands selling neatly stacked piles of “white gold.” Germans consume about 125,000 tons of the vegetable each year. So important is the Spargelzeit in Germany that there was great concern about last year’s harvest due the coronavirus lockdowns that shut out seasonal pickers from Eastern Europe. The tabloid Bild actually raised the possibility of drafting soldiers to help pick the asparagus. Since, at my market, white gold was only $1.50 a bunch — and since I was missing my usual spring work travel to Europe — I figured I’d try to replicate Spargelzeit at home.

If I was doing things traditionally, I knew I also wanted to pair the white asparagus with a silvaner wine. In Germany, silvaner is considered a light, gentle, gulplable white wine, one to enjoy every day, perhaps even at midday. A century ago it was the most commonly planted grape in Germany, but over the years silvaner gained a poor reputation because it was often over cropped. But when it’s done well, silvaner is fresh, floral, and fragrant — like the taste of a beautiful spring afternoon.

The best silvaner arguably comes from Franconia, where it’s sold in a unique rounded and flattened flask called a Bocksbeutel. I have fond memories of visiting Würzburg, in Franconia, for a few days in 2019 during Spargelzeit. Würzburg is an almost holy city of German wine — with one mythical vineyard site, Würzburger Stein, praised in the poetry of Goethe, dating to at least the 8th century. I was completely seduced by the wine culture of Würzburg, with people of all ages gathering on Alte Mainbrücke (Old Main Bridge) on a warm evening below an illuminated castle, everyone drinking glasses of silvaner poured from strange bottles, before wandering off to eat their white asparagus. Perhaps this goes without saying: A dry silvaner in Bocksbeutel that evokes those evenings in Würzburg is nearly impossible to find in your average wine shop in the United States.

I did — after some serious searching — find a 2017 Strub Silvaner Feinherb. Feinherb, as my German-based friend Paula Redes Sidore so eloquently writes, “is a style of wine that is nothing short of lawless.” It’s a style of wine that denotes off-dry (“or off-dry-ish,” says Paula). There is no legal definition. Feinherb is more of a feeling: lightness, balance, harmony. To be honest, Paula gently scoffed at the idea of drinking a feinherb silvaner with white asparagus: Germans would always prefer bone dry. Well…we do what we can in the Philadelphia suburbs!

The Strub winery is in Rheinhessen, another German region where silvaner grows well. I’d also visited with Sebastian Strub on my last visit, and walked with him in this particular vineyard, on a steep slope high above the town of Nierstein on the Rhine. This was the famed Roter Hang, or Red Slope, another mythical site with very unusual red soil of 280 million year old sandstone and slate. Strub told me that this particular feinherb silvaner was a happy accident — the fermentation got stuck and he was left with significant residual sugar. But his importer liked it, and so it was bottled and shipped to the U.S.

So, all in all an unusual off-dry white wine to pair with a relatively unusual Sunday lunch of white asparagus.

White asparagus is really just regular asparagus that’s been grown under the earth (or some other covering) with no exposure to sunlight — no photosynthesis happens so they never turn green. The white is woodier and more fibrous than the green, and so you have to chop the ends and peel the spears (in Germany people have a special asparagus peeler, but a regular peeler works too). You can put the ends and peels into boiling water for about 15 minutes to create a sort of stock, then remove the bits and drop in the peeled spears, along with salt and lemon juice, to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I whisked up a quickie hollandaise with egg yolks, lemon juice, some salt and paprika, and lots of melted butter. Germans often serve their Spargel with ham or potatoes, but I decided to focus on the asparagus.

The result was striking, and so different than the grassy and sweet taste of typical fresh green asparagus. The taste of white asparagus is more like a cross between root vegetable, like parsips, and peas. The rich and creamy hollandaise, the traditional dressing, and sprinkled chives blend well with the dish’s delicate earthiness. With all this going on, you want a quieter, lighter wine that takes a step into the background. Silvaner’s greatest virtue is how refreshing it is, and the Strub feinherb was both fresh and complex. The slight sweet notes of ripe pear were certainly there, but balanced by a swirl of herbal, chalky, salty flavors and textures, with so much juicy, thrilling acidity, finishing crisp and ready for more. Neither the asparagus nor the silvaner lasted long.

Perhaps it was the atypical lunch or the unusual wine (or because I am a deeply odd person) but my thoughts that afternoon wandered toward other strange topics, such as 17th-century Dutch still life painting. More specifically, the quiet paintings of Adriaen Coorte, who painted numerous still lifes with white asparagus — sometimes with berries or currants or artichokes or exotic birds, and sometimes alone. Coorte’s most famous — hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam — is a moody, shadowy close-up of a bunch of asparagus on a worn wooden table. Dutch still lifes usually featured rare or “luxury” fruits and vegetables that would not have been readily available, and white asparagus was as prized in the 17th century as it now. But Coorte’s paintings were always much more humble than the ostentatious, over-the-top still life, called pronkstilleven — the ones most people recognize, with grand tables set with shellfish, exotic fruit, vases of flowers, ornate wine glasses, and even little dogs, birds, and monkeys.

Art historians don’t know very much about Coorte. But we do know that he would have painted during and following a succession of plague years in Holland. In 1664, 24,000 people died of the plague in Amsterdam, more than 10 percent of the city’s population. Pandemic lurks behind so much of the painting of the era, often with obvious still-life imagery of skulls or hourglasses or rotting fruit — suggesting the transience of life, the certainty of death, the futility of pleasure.

Coorte’s most affecting work, however, focused simply on the food at hand. As I look at his Still Life with Asparagus — during our own plague as we all post images of our food — things don’t seem to have changed as much over three centuries as we like to believe. And I wondered what Coorte drank with his asparagus after he finished painting it.