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The Spreewald Kitchen - Food from Germany

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Spreewald canals and pumpkins

Spreewald canals and pumpkins

Flickr user Idan Sofer CC BY-SA 2.0

The "Spreewald" (The Spree Forest - the Spree is a river also flowing through Berlin) is an area about 60 miles south east of Berlin in the state of Brandenburg that has its own culture and language. The Slavic groups (Sorbs and Wends) from the south and east who moved into the area in the sixth century AD, brought agricultural knowledge to their new home. Farming, fishing and animal husbandry have long-standing traditions in the area.

In order to farm in the lowland alder - pine - wetland mixture, the people dug channels to direct the Spree for irrigation and drainage. There are about 800 miles of channels, or "Fließen" within the 1991-designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. With 18,000 species of animals and plants to see, a large tourist economy has emerged in the Spreewald.

Archeological finds show granaries with rye, wheat and millet from the sixth century. The Slavic people also planted flax for the fiber and the oil and collected berries, hazelnuts, acorns, elderberry and wild grass seeds.

Of particular culinary interest is the millet seed, buckwheat seed and flax seed oil. Millet has had a place in the Sorbian kitchen since the stone age and is still cooked today. The most common dishes are "Hirsekraut" (cabbage with millet), "Milchhirse" (millet cooked in milk) and "Hirseklöße" (millet dumplings).

A special dish called "Bundele" (little bundles) is made from millet cooked until thick and mixed with lard or flaxseed oil, formed into balls, wrapped in cabbage leaves and braised. This was served with fresh milk but in the modern kitchen fruit compote and sweet and sour pumpkin preserves are served.

"Buchweizen" ("Heidekorn" or buckwheat) was grown for personal use and cooked into a gruel. It lost popularity during the 20th century but has recently had a small comeback.

Flaxseed oil ("Leinöl" or linseed oil) has also been important for many hundreds of years. Indeed it is the earliest historic oil seed that was grown in Germany (the others being hemp and poppy). It is still used in the Sorbian kitchen although it is hardly grown there anymore. Instead, China, India and Canada grow the most flax.

Flaxseed oil has a strong taste, reminding some people of nuts and hay when freshly pressed, and is often served with quark and boiled potatoes or used as a dipping sauce with bread and salt or dry rolls and sugar. They also make cucumber salads and herring in sour cream with linseed oil. Poured over dishes cooked in milk, it hinders the milk from going sour, particularly useful in summer with no refrigeration.

Additionally, the Sorbs and Wends kept animals, fished for pike, pike-perch, carp, catfish or tench and grew fruit trees. Apples, pears, peach, plums and cherries were described by travelers in the Middle Ages.

The Spreewald is not only known for its flaxseed oil, it is also very famous for its vegetables. "Spreewälder Gurken" (cucumbers and pickles), onions, carrots, parsley root, beets, hemp, celeriac, poppy, lentils, dill, marjoram, coriander, peas, beans, vetch, winter squash and horseradish were traditionally grown. During World War I, the Spreewald was the only source of onions for Germany. Onions were so important during the 15th century, that legal contracts were drawn up to ensure that the parents received their share of them after placing the farm in the children's names.

Seen as a great way to keep people from starvation, the potato became the mainstay of Spreewälder cuisine in the late 18th century. The area was indeed so poor that most meals were eaten without meat, bacon or butter, but with potatoes. In 1805, the potato yield was higher even than the rye yield and housewife tips abounded on how to use potatoes, even how to thaw them if they had been frozen so they would not go to waste.

"Kartoffeln" (potatoes) in the Spreewald are known as "Kneedeln" and sometimes as "Knödeln." In other parts of Germany "Knödeln" means dumplings, not potatoes. They were often eaten in the mornings, with quark and flaxseed oil, for lunch with the same and an addition of cooked barley or millet, buttermilk soup, elderberry soup or beer soup. The evening meal was more of the same.

Also in the 18th century, beer brewing became a part of the Spreewald cuisine. Hops were planted and beer was sold as far away as Denmark*.

Between World War II and 1989, the Spreewald was part of East Germany. The famous Spreewälder Gurken (Spreewald pickles) were sold by the "VEB Spreewaldkonserve Golßen" ("Volkseigener Betrieb" - a state-owned company). After reunification, these pickles were one of the few, East German products which never disappeared from the market.

Although brown coal production was introduced to the Spreewald during GDR times (East Germany), today tourism is the main industry in the Spreewald together with agriculture, forestry and fisheries. The Biosphere Reserve is a popular destination, as well as the city of Lübbenau.

Pickles are the Spreewald's most famous product. Three major variations exist; sour, mustard and spiced, which are often sweet like cornichons ("sauere Gurken" "Senfgurken" and "Gewürzgurken").

It is also common to cook or braise cucumbers with bacon, onions, tomatoes and broth. Add some ground round if you live in the rich west. Finish the stew with vinegar, salt, pepper, dill and browned, buttered crumbs. Another "Schmorgurken" recipe is made with a sour cream sauce.

Recipes from the Spreewald:

Source: Christel Lehmann-Enders. "Kneedel, Leinöl & Quark" Heimat-Verlag Lübben, 2009 (ISBN 3-929600-10-2)
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