food history

Tales of pickles and 'Ostalgie'

On the day to commemorate 25 years of German reunification, it seems only right to recognise the beloved Spreewälder Gurken (Spreewald pickles) and the concept of Ostalgie. For this little gherkin, represents a wealth of German history and political, even emotional conflict. He is more than just a pickle and encapsulates the essence of Ostalgie, the longing or nostalgia for the East German regime, the GDR.

Ask today's Berliner how they feel about the German reunification and of course, the majority are relieved and positive about the end of the GDR (and their country becoming whole again). However, there are some who lament the loss of the communist era and with it, the social system and the feeling of being part of a community.

This longing, affectionately termed 'ostalgie', a play on the words 'ost' meaning east and 'nostalgie' meaning nostalgia, encompasses the sentiment felt by some East germans that it was better in the days of the GDR. 'Die Mauer im Kopf' (wall in the mind) represents the divide, east from west, that continues to be felt by some. The remains of the Berlin wall may have been swept away, but it could take another generation for its effects to be fully forgotten. 

Walking around Neukölln, where I live, the difficult past of this city can be so easily forgotten, but enter Mitte or walk by Ostbahnhof and the remnants can be seen. Walk along Bernauerstraße on your way to Mauer Park, pass the Eastside gallery on your way to Berghain, Berlin's struggle is tangible, though it may now be brightly coloured. 

The Spreewald pickle, hailing from the damp, swampy forests of the Spreewald region just outside of Berlin, are one of the last remaining 'Ostprodukte' (Eastern products) to survive the fall of the wall. Flavoured either with dill, mustard seed or spices, they help satiate this nostalgia and represent a little win over the dominant West.

A popular delicacy in Berlin for centuries, stemming back to the 1740s when Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, brought both potatoes and cucumbers to Germany. He was a good man- I have no idea what Berliners would do without potatoes and pickles!

Other OstProdukte that can still be found in today's German supermarkets are Rotkäppchen, Vita cola and Berliner Pilsner. Rotkäppchen sekt (sparkling wine) is still very much the favoured Berliner bubbles of choice. A few days ago, in my local Späti, (corner shop), a lady was forced to buy a bottle of Mumm as the Rotkäppchen was sold out and this clearly pained her no end. Rotkäppchen actually now owns Mumm, but she wasn't to know.

If your interest has been piqued, go to Ostpaket in Mitte here in Berlin, which is an Ostalgie paradise. 

The authentic way to enjoy this juicy, fruity little Spreewälder pickle is with a hunk of good German bread and a lick of schmalz (dripping). If, like me, dripping gives you the fear, then you can find veggie options as shown in the photo. 

Enjoy with a nice Berliner Pilsner or a glass of Rotkäppchen and raise your glass to the German Reunification.


Tales of Potatoes and Potsdam


The potato, or rather the Kartoffel, is king in Germany. 

It is the staple accompaniment for so many dishes, the childhood favourite of simply boiled and served with herby quark, or fried alongside an intimidatingly large schnitzel or used to create pillows of deliciousness in the form of German dumplings, Knödel. Debates are made as to the best way to make your kartoffel salat (potato salad) and any traditional German dish is not without the humble tuber in some form.

The potato invokes passion and great enthusiasm here in Germany, which is perhaps most evident in the sweet tale of the potato Linda. This particular variety of potato almost became extinct in Germany back in 2004, when the company that distributed it decided they were no longer going to. This meant that any farmer that continued to grow this potato would be acting illegally. Petitions were signed and rallies were made and with support from the media, Linda was saved. This was a farmer's success story and supports the fact, one should never try and come between a German and their potato! 

Now, in the area I live in Berlin- Neukölln, there is a farmers market named Die Dicke Linda (the fat Linda) in honour of this special spud.

Cookbooks and restaurants can be found dedicated solely to this humble veggie. The potato is revered and celebrated and to be honest, I can whole heartedly understand. WHAT WOULD WE DO WITHOUT POTATOES?

It is thanks to Prussia's favourite king, Frederick the Great, that we have such potato based specialities in Germany today.

He introduced this strange and exotic vegetable to the Kingdom of Prussia in 1743 which, initially, was met with suspicion and avoidance.

However, Old Fritz, recognising the potato's affordable and nourishing qualities, was on a mission to encourage his people to accept it. He decided to grow potatoes in abundance within the gardens leading up to his palace, Sanssouci, in Potsdam and ordered his soldiers to guard the potato fields heavily, thus piquing the interest of the villagers. At night, the king instructed his soldiers to relax their guard so as to allow villagers to creep into the fields and steal these 'treasured' potatoes.

And the rest, as they say, is history. To this day, the Germans love their spuds. If you visit the palace at Potsdam and go to Frederick's grave, you will find an array of potato offerings, scattered across his resting space. Flowers are redundant, it is the potato that should be left as a mark of respect and gratitude for bringing this great vegetable and source of such culinary wealth to their land.

Interestingly, the potato was shunned across Europe, originally brought over from South America by the Spanish during the 15th century. During the 18th century, it was met with doubt from the British, as potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible, and in France, Marie Antoinette needed a lot of persuasion to accept the strange looking tuber as food. This was achieved by a scientist named Antoine Parmentier (Parmentier potatoes!) who introduced her to the beauty of potato plant blossoms in the form of a trendy head dress.

Back in Germany, I recently made the journey from Berlin to Potsdam with my brother, visiting from London, and decided to respect the potato-offering tradition by leaving a few from my kitchen on the old king's grave. Unfortunately, my offerings were not too pretty and had become a little old and shriveled, (it was a Sunday when the whole of Germany is closed!).I decided to take them regardless. I mean after all- they were from the very expensive Bio Company, so I figured they would be good enough for Old Fritz and not too offensive!

Now, I am a fairly sentimental person and to be fair, it doesn't take much to stir my emotional side,  but it felt quite special to take part in this old tradition of placing a potato on top of Frederick the Great's grave and remembering his part to play.

Should I get out more? I don't know, but lets raise a schnapps (preferably a potato based one) to Old Fritz and his faith in the potato.