Only a few East German products have survived the transition to capitalism. Brands like Vita-Cola, Rotkäppchen Sekt and Berliner Pilsner all held their own against Western competition. But Ostalgie drinks aside, if there is one Ostprodukt that did not fall with the Wall, it’s the distinguished Spreewald gherkin.
Twenty years after reunification, the briny Brandenburg treat – marketed by a handful of regional brands bearing the EU’s “Protected Geographic Indication” seal – account for half of the domestic market.
The Spreewald gherkin got an unexpected and unprecedented publicity boost in the 2003 film Goodbye, Lenin!, in which Daniel Brühl frantically pastes Spreewald logos on bottles of Western pickles in an effort to convince his mother that the GDR hasn’t collapsed.
But the cucumber fields in idyllic Spreewald, where the Spree River splits into hundreds of channels that meander through primeval forests and swamps, were no Socialist invention. The gherkin had long been a delicacy prized by the pickiest pickle-lovers; the 19th-century novelist Theodor Fontane liked them so much that he had a barrel delivered to his home in the capital each year.
Lübbenau is Spreewald’s largest town, a sleepy burg surrounded by dense forests of towering birches and pines some 100km southeast of Berlin. The green cucumber fields in the surrounding countryside stretch as far as the eye can see, and shops touting the gherkins line the sleepy streets.
At Zeitlos, a local Kneipe, breadbaskets with pickles and black bread are typical fare. Otto Henning, a lifetime resident, acknowledges the celebrated status of the gherkins. “Here, the pickle is king,” he muses as he takes a sip of his Spreewälder Dunkel.
In the neighboring village of Lehde, the intrepid visitor can tour the Gurken- und Bauernhausmuseum, a peasant house where the walls teem with tools used by generations of picklers. All varieties of gherkins are also available for tasting.
Three major variations are the salty saure Gurken (lacto-fermented, pickled in brine and refined with fresh dill; sugar- and vinegar-free; excellent hangover cure), Senfgurken (pickled with mustard seeds, sugar and vinegar) and Gewürzgurken (with spices, sugar and vinegar).
The rich mineral content and delicate water balance of the local soil are key ingredients in defining the vaunted Spreewald appellation. The over 40,000 tonnes of cucumbers harvested in Spreewald account for 50 percent of pickled cucumber sales in Germany – an astounding number considering that only about 20 local farmers engage in production. Most of the cucumbers are processed at the Spreewaldkonserve in Golßen, and around 1 million jars of Spreewald gherkins are bottled daily, all locally.
Craving a local pickle? Head for your usual Supermarkt and opt for one of the many jars with “Spreewälder” on it!