Tucked into a lush, green corner of the German province of Brandenburg, just an hour outside of Berlin on the train, there is a web of canals called Spreewald.
It is a place I might well have dreamed up. A place commited to pickles.
Arriving to the town of Lübbenau, you will be pleasantly charmed by many things. There is a castle, and there is a small town square full of stands selling pickles. Some bread, some beer, and some pastries too, but mostly pickles. On the canals, there are boats full of comfortably seated passengers admiring the forests and towns they are slowly floating through as they are paddled by someone standing at the back of the boat, not unlike a Venetian gondolier. There is even a pickle museum, a rickety wood hut full of dresses and beds, with walls covered in recipes for a dozen different kinds of pickles and one for pickle soup.
That is all very nice. I mean really, very nice. But what really made my head spin in Spreewald was something we found after getting lost on the water.
If you ever find yourself in Spreewald and you too are a pickle lover, I suggest you rent a kayak; then, paddle slowly through the tiny canals that lace through the edge of the town, and with a bit more muscle and gusto as you reach the wider passages that curve through the quiet forests. As you get deeper in, further away from any buidlings and any sounds not originating from a bird or the water (or your cell phone), you will run across the occasional sign like the one pictured above. In your kayak, you might find a map like the one pictured below.
Still, in all likelihood, as you paddle yourself deeper into the swamp-like nowhere and soak up all the green with your city eyes, you will get utterly lost. And, with any luck, you will stumble upon the gold, the source of the aforementioned head-spinning, a place of worship for those who pray to the gods of vinegar. If you were in Cancun, you might swim up to something similar in a neon bikini and order a piña colada. But here, you are wearing flannel, and you maneuver your kayak as best as you can to slowly dock against a small shack floating on the edge of a canal and order a paper plate full of pickles. Pickled cucumber in all shapes and inclinations, be it dill, garlic, mustard, onion, or black pepper. Pickled red peppers, pickled cauliflower, and if you are to believe your eyes and taste buds, pickle-scented beer (very sweet and vaguely hinting at the taste of pickle brine, we were told that this beer was for the ladies).
I came back from Spreewald with a good supply of pickles and high hopes of trying some of the recipes from the pickle museum. But in Berlin, you can buy Spreewald pickles almost anywhere you can buy milk. They are excellent, superior pickles, crispy and not as excessively sweet as most of the supermarket pickles I’ve tried here, and I am at my most content when my fridge is full of them. But when I get to pickling myself, I usually end up keen to try something new, something non-cucumber and something I haven’t tasted before. So, while I can’t vouch for the salty pickle recipe photographed above, I can sing a sour song about the recipes below, black pepper pickled fennel and orange, pickled grapes with mustard seed, and tumeric brightened zuchinni pickles, each unusual and versatile in their own way.
These three recipes use the same general method, but their flavours and textures are wildly different. If it’s a vegetable, you salt it to bring out the water. Then, in a medium saucepan, you heat the vinegar with sugar and spices until it comes to a boil, lower the heat and let simmer for a few minutes. Let the brine cool down until it’s just warm (if it’s too hot, it will cook whatever it’s being poured on, and some crispness will be lost). Pour the warm brine over the soon-to-be pickles, then scoop into clean jars and let sit overnight to pickle. Then, dig in.
These pickles will all keep for a few months in the fridge, and will get stronger as time passes. I find them best within the first week.
yield : about 2 pints
2 large fennel bulbs, washed, trimmed and sliced thin (about 2cm)
2 tablespoons salt
1 orange, thoroughly washed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
In a large bowl, toss the fennel with the salt. Add very cold water to cover the fenel, just barely. Let it sit for an hour, rinse, drain, and thoroughly dry the fennel and the bowl. Cut the orange into quaters and then slice thinly. Add them to the bowl with the fennel and proceed with the brine as described above.
from Judy Rogers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook
1 pound zucchini (medium-smallish), trimmed and sliced very thin (about 1 cm)
1 small yellow onion, peeled and sliced very thin
3 tablespoons salt
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 scant cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard (I often use a spicy yellow wet mustard if I don’t have dry mustard handy)
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed yellow and/or brown mustard seeds
scant 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
In a large bowl, toss onion and zuchinni with salt. Add very cold water to cover the vegetables, just barely. Let it sit for an hour, rinse, drain, and thoroughly dry the vegetables and the bowl. Proceed with the brine as described above.
From Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life
1 pound red or black grapes, preferably seedless
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons brown mustard seends
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 (2 1/2-inch) cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon salt
Rinse and dry the grapes, then gently remove them from the stems and trim off what Molly refers to as the ‘belly buttons’ to expose a bit of the grape’s flesh. Put them in a medium-sized bowl and set aside. Proceed with the brine as described above.