There is a scene in the wonderful film, Good Bye, Lenin!, that revolves around the need to find a specific brand of East German gherkin. The sudden collapse of the GDR leads the main character on a desperate search for an authentic jar of Spreewaldgurken, the pickled cucumbers that come from the region south of Berlin. So beloved were they, that they were one of the few products from the former Communist East Germany to survive reunification.
They didn’t just survive though, they thrived. Visit any supermarket in Berlin and there will be several metres of shelves dedicated to gherkins. Their appeal? A perfect balance of salty, sweet and sour. There are many gherkin brands, but the Spreewaldgurken has a special place in the hearts and minds of Germans. Despite eating no small number of gherkins since we moved here, I gave no thought to where all those pickled cucumbers came from. The good news is, the Spreewald is only an hour away by train.
Today, an astonishing 1 million jars of pickled gherkins are bottled each and every day, all of them in local facilities. They account for about half of all the gherkins consumed in Germany. That’s a lot of gherkins, most of which are still picked by hand. Tradition is big in the Spreewald, and pickling methods and recipes have changed little since they were introduced by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. In summer the gherkins grow so quickly that the plants can be harvested every two to four days.
It’s the Spreewald’s mineral soils that makes it such a good region for the growing of cucumbers, but it would be doing the region a disservice to reduce it to a stereotype of only a pickled vegetable. This is a region of ancient forest and picturesque waterways that is deservedly popular for hiking and cycling. It’s also dotted with pretty towns and villages that, while connected by road and rail today, for centuries relied on small boats as the main form of transport.
Surrounded by forests of birch and pine, Lübbenau is the Spreewald’s largest town, and is easily reached by train from Berlin. I arrived on a sunny morning excited to discover the land of the gherkin. I was a bit disappointed not to be greeted at the train station by gherkin food trucks, but paintings of traditional scenes that covered the walls of the station were enough to whet the appetite. These included what looked like goblins or elves.
Like many parts of Germany, the heavily forested Spreewald is home to many legends and superstitions. One of the central characters of Spreewald myth are Lutki, dwarves who help the good and make fools of the bad, which originate in the sagas of the Slavic Sorb people who have inhabited this region for centuries. It’s easy to imagine the tall tales that took root in such an isolated part of the world, including one about a dragon called Plon that I was hoping to avoid on my walk to the village of Lehde.
First though, I wandered around Lübbenau. It’s a pretty place with a decent museum and a friendly tourist office. I walked over to the 19th century Schloss Lübbenau and through the landscaped grounds, before heading to where the real action in Lübbenau can be found – the harbour. Boat trips on traditional flat-bottomed boats, punted through the wetlands by a ‘captain’, are big business in the Spreewald.
The small harbour was busy with day-trippers selecting a boat ride. I was planning to walk to the historic village of Lehde, so grabbed a fish sandwich with obligatory gherkin before setting off. The walk would take me through woods filled with bird song and the occasional sound of a woodpecker. I glimpsed a kingfisher diving into the waters and saw birds of prey in the high branches of the trees. It’s no wonder this area is popular with Berliners seeking tranquility.