Sharon Martens will make a grand entrance to the asparagus market in Arcen, Limburg, in a red convertible, wearing her green and white asparagus dress. The 22-year-old has been crowned asparagus queen for the third consecutive year—a title that has been created by the asparagus brotherhood Confrérie de l'Asperge Limbourgondië. That's a dignified name for a society that simply wants to ensure that people eat more asparagus and prepare it correctly, and to promote proper asparagus farming methods.
In Limburg, everything is a little more dignified than in the rest of the country. (In Maastricht, a food festival is called a preuvenemint—loosely translated, a "taste event.") And in general, the people from the province of Limburg also know how to dine well. Asparagus is important for Limburg's food culture and the asparagus harvest is always excitedly anticipated. The asparagus season is celebrated with all kinds of festivities, such as dinners, "asparaguseries," and galas.
"The asparagus brotherhood has 250 members who each have to promise to eat five kilos of asparagus every year," says Pieter Smits, president of the brotherhood, by phone. "That is ten portions, but that is easily achieved. Do you like them?"
I tell him I just love asparagus and that I will eat them again this weekend for the fourth time this season. "Since 1980, the year that the brotherhood was founded, the average consumption of 300 grams per person has increased to 800 grams."
The election of the asparagus queen is one of the tasks of the brotherhood. Because I was curious about how one becomes an asparagus queen, and what it entails, I called up Sharon to ask.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Sharon. How do you prefer to eat your asparagus?Sharon Martens: The traditional way: with butter, egg, ham ,and Parisian potatoes.
How do you become asparagus queen?To start with, you need to have a connection with asparagus. It is, for instance, not feasible that you do not like them. In principle, you can just sign up for it at the brotherhood—the new advertisement for the next queen has just been placed in the Limburg magazine Navenant. I was asked by the brotherhood because they liked to have a daughter of a grower, and for recognisability they would like to keep the queen for more than one year. I am now queen for the third consecutive and also last year; that's why they placed the ad again. I will be part of the jury for the election.
What qualities does a good asparagus queen have to possess?You have to be between 20 and 30 years old, not shy, and you have to have some knowledge about asparagus. The latter is important: how long the season is, how they grow, what different kinds there are—those kinds of things. You just have to be able to represent the asparagus very well.
Are you an asparagus queen year-round?No, it is a volunteer function during the three months of the asparagus season. I can now combine it very well with my work in a hair salon, where I take a leave of three months.
What are your tasks?Every year there are a number of important events: there is the opening of the asparagus season; a dinner in Nieuwspoort in The Hague with members of Parliament and journalists; and there are also many dinners where my presence is required. My role is to promote the Limburg asparagus. Often I read the ode, a fun piece of text about Limburg asparagus, and often I have to knight somebody, appoint them as a member of the brotherhood. And then, of course, eat, drink, and network.
Are those dinners always fun? I can imagine that there are often many people there who are a lot older that you are.That is correct. Those are mostly mature people. I often ask my boyfriend or a family member [to come with me] so I can fall back on them. But I do like it; I have learned so much from it. When I started this, I was really young, and having been asparagus queen really has molded me—I find it easier to talk to people and I enjoy meeting new people.
Tell me something about the dress.It was made in 2012 by Limburg designer Tilly Zegers for the Floriade; she also made a mushroom dress and a tomato dress for that occasion. The brotherhood bought it from her afterward and also asked her to design the men's clothing. The white dresses represent the cream-white of the asparagus, and the colors yellow and blue represent Limburg.
Do you feel different when you wear that dress?I am a hairdresser, so I usually wear hip clothing. When I see my friends and they see me in the dress, it takes some getting used to for them to see me like that. The dress is a little old-fashioned for me, but older people just love it.
You were chosen by the brotherhood because you are the daughter of a grower. Were there any women who were jealous or thought it was favoritism?I have not heard anything like that. It is pretty difficult to find a queen; you have to give up things for it, too. I can now combine it very well with my work as a hairdresser, but not everybody can get time off from work. And I also do not advertise my father's company. Dad often sponsors the asparagus for the dinners, but they promote themselves enough; I do not have to do anything for that. I promote Limburg asparagus in general.
What is the best thing that has happened to you so far as an asparagus queen?The other day when I was in The Hague at Nieuwspoort, [famed journalist] Frits Wester came up to me. We sat and talked for half an hour. I was so thrilled about that, a celebrity who came up to me. I often meet famous people, but usually it is just for a picture and you're done. This was the first time that someone really sat down and talked to me. Frits is really very nice.
On Ascension Day you are present at the asparagus market in Arcen, an important event. What are you going to do there?I will arrive in a red convertible and then go on stage. There I will read the ode and that takes care of the official part. Then I just mingle in the market and have pictures taken with people.
Thanks so much, Sharon, and have fun!
This article originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.