Queen of the stalks

INTERVIEW! As society unravels, even Germany's favourite vegetable faces trouble. We speak to Brandenburg's new Spargel Queen about what it means to be vegetable royalty in these trying times - and some of her best Beelitz tips!

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Gina-Luise Schrey has opened the Spargel season, Corona style. (Photo: private)

On Tuesday this week, the Spargel season officially opened. But it is an unusual year for farmers, as Covid-19 threatens the yield of the Germans’ favourite spring vegetable. We spoke to 20-year-old Gina-Luise Schrey, the 23rd Beelitz Spargel Queen representing the Brandenburg region’s most-prized crop about what’s at stake, how to best enjoy white asparagus during lockdown and what to look forward to later in the year.

Your Majesty, how did you ascend to this high office advertising your region’s most famous vegetable? What does it take to become Spargel Queen?

I really wanted to be Spargel Queen because I grew up in Busendorf by the Spargel fields and now live in nearby Fichtenwalde. Although my family does not have any kind of farming background, I feel deeply rooted in the Beelitz region. I love the villages and countryside here! This was the second year I submitted my application and this time the Beelitzer Spargelverein invited me for an interview where farmers asked me questions about asparagus. Like, how many hectares of asparagus fields are there around Beelitz (1700ha) and Brandenburg at large (3900ha), or how many kilograms of Spargel the average German eats per year. This last one I got wrong: it’s 1 to 1.5kg. I thought it would be much more, I certainly eat more! Anyway, the season is always opened at one of the farms, this year it was in Schäpe. Normally there would have been a big Spargelfest, but I was given the crown without a ceremony and there was no shaking of hands or anything because we had to keep the safety distance. It’s a bit of a shame but also a year that will be remembered.

What are your duties as vegetable royalty?

There are eleven Spargel farms around Beelitz and I have to make public appearances whenever they have events. I’ll also go to the Grüne Woche in Berlin in January and give interviews at a state press conference. Before I drive to these appointments, I get my hair done at the hairdresser’s and put on my dress, crown and jewellery to go greet people, have pictures taken and talk about asparagus. In a normal year, there would be up to 75 events for me to attend, but of course there might be less now due to the Corona crisis. However, I was given a protective mask to go with my dress.

Normally there would have been a big Spargelfest, but I was given the crown without a ceremony and there was no shaking of hands or anything because we had to keep the safety distance.

Is it true you had zero competitors for the crown? Why do you think that is and what do your friends say?

Well, it’s an honorary office that takes lots of time over the course of the year, which many young people might not have—for example, if they are studying or training for a job. For me it fit well. I passed my Abitur in Beelitz in 2018, then went travelling around Australia for three months and to Indonesia. Afterwards I volunteered at a primary school for a year, which ended in March and now I am waiting to be able to apply for university in Potsdam or Berlin to become a primary school teacher. 

My parents are very proud that I am now the Spargel Queen of Beelitz, as is my grandma. She’ll be so happy when I go visit her in my dress – keeping at a safe distance, of course! Many of my friends were also happy for me, but there are others who don’t get what’s so special about it and why I give so much up for this. The 2019 Spargel Queen lives in a neighbouring village and we see each other often and go out together as well. It was her who nudged me to try and apply again this year, she said the experience was totally worth it. 

What does the Corona crisis mean for the Spargel harvest? The farmers are missing seasonal workers from abroad, but 80,000 are to be admitted to Germany over the course of this month and next, right?

Yes, that is the official information, and the German farmers’ association will decide where they go. Currently, Brandenburg has 5000 seasonal workers, and about 2300 booked workers from abroad, mostly from Poland and Romania, are missing. Normally they would be noticeably more people around here at this point— the seasonal helpers usually live on the farms where they work. This year, on top of the missing workforce, we happen to have all this sunshine now and the warm temperatures mean the asparagus grows very quickly.

Unfortunately, if the Spargel is not harvested in time, it grows out of the earth mounds and loses its characteristic properties. The Spargelverein is expecting a smaller yield than in previous years, which will also make the Spargel more expensive. Of course, the impact will be felt by the farms and the gastronomy sector. But it’s not like there is nobody. The Spargel is being harvested while distancing measures are observed.

Some of my friends don’t get what’s so special about it and why I am giving so much time to this.

Asparagus season continues until June 24. Once the travel restrictions can be lifted, what do you recommend visitors do around Beelitz?

A nice thing to do by car is to go down the so-called Spargelstraße, which goes from Blankensee through Beelitz and all the way to Lehnin. The Spargel farms are all more or less on that route and you can see the fields, visit their farm shops and go to their restaurants where they serve all kinds of Spargel dishes – from the classic and my personal favourite with Schnitzel, potatoes and hollandaise or browned butter, to Spargel with salmon, Spargel soup and Spargel bakes. The strangest offer I have seen was at the farm in Klaistow where I used to work as a waitress: they served Spargel with cow’s tongue! In Beelitz itself there is a Spargel museum which is quite popular. There you can learn about the history of Spargel farming and how it’s done, and you can see all the dresses worn by the previous Spargel Queens!

Berliners can’t go, but what are your tips for Spargel shopping? 

Spargel actually contains 95 percent water. To make sure the one you’re buying is fresh, it helps to look at the end of the stalk and make sure it isn’t dry, brown or hollow. When you press on the end, a little bit of juice should come out and it should smell and taste pleasant and definitely not sour. You also want your Spargel to be firm to the touch and not bendy. Then there are also three quality grades – from 1st to 3rd class – that help guide consumers. At the moment, the Spargel is still quite expensive at €10-15 per kilogram, but the Spargelverein expects that prices will go down to less than €10 after Easter.