Since Slavic people settled in the region in the seventh and eighth centuries, gherkins have been cultivated in the Spreewald. But it was Dutch immigrants at the turn of the 17th century that made picking, peeling, and pickling cucumbers into a community-wide business. These days locals and tourists alike celebrate the gherkin’s heritage at the annual Spreewälder Gurkentag, or Spreewald Gherkin Festival. From the reenactments of the traditional pickling process to the gherkin wares and gherkin beer for sale, in the Spreewald the pickle reigns. Indeed, as if to prove that point, a gherkin king and queen are crowned at the fair.
At this year’s Gurkentag in late August, Melanie Kossatz, the managing director of a regional development group called Spreewaldverein, pointed out the special blue and yellow circle on the jars of pickles with pride—it is the European Union seal of approval, certifying the product’s “Protected Geographical Indication” or PGI. The labels signal that the products bearing them have met strict qualifications. For Spreewald gherkins they mean that the majority of cucumbers in the jar were actually grown and pickled in the Spreewald, using traditional recipes, and not, say, flown in from Turkey or the Netherlands. The certifications are, in addition to being a reassurance to locavores, a tool forged by the EU for rural economic development and keeping cultural traditions alive.
Thus the French have their Roquefort, the English their Cornish Pasty, and the Italians their Parmigiano Reggiano. In 2007, the value of goods with Geographical Indications is 14.2 billion euros—not including wine, spirits, and beer. In Germany, the sales value of such products has only steadily increased since the first Nuremberg gingerbread and Lübeck marzipan received PGI seals in 1996.
As for Spreewald gherkins, they are not just any German pickles: They are East German pickles. From the period after World War II until German reunification in 1990, they were a product of the German Democratic Republic (the GDR, or DDR, in its German abbreviation) produced by a Volkseigener Betrieb, or a People’s Enterprise state-run company. The only Spreewald gherkins were the ones pickled and canned at the VEB Spreewaldkonserve.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, the currency switch from the East German mark to the formerly West German deutsche mark, and the subsequent years of privatization brought challenges as well as opportunities for industries in Eastern Germany. “No one wanted to eat eastern products,” said Sören Moretz, the collections manager at the DDR Museum in Berlin. “Why eat Nudossi,” a hazelnut spread produced in the former East Germany, “when you can buy Nutella?”
Many German companies did not survive the free-market frenzy. The DDR Museum is filled with some 200,000 objects that were produced in East Germany and are no longer made today. Some companies like the VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau, which produced the East German Trabant car, were years behind technologically and could not keep up with changing customer demand.