Germany's Best Pickle: Spreewaldgurken

Spreewald pickle
Erin Porter

Few East German products outlasted the fall of the Wall, but the Spreewald pickle was one of beloved Ostalgie items that was good enough for reunited Germany. Alternatively called the Spreewald Gherkin and Spreewaldgurken, this pickle is not just a source of briney enjoyment, but a point of pride and employment. Discover the significance of the Spreewald Gherkin and how you can celebrate its existence against the odds.

What's So Special About the Spreewald Pickle?

The first thing of note about this pickle is its region. An hour southeast from the city, the Spreewald is known as the “green lung” of Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin. This forest area looks like it sprung from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and is a UNESCO protected biosphere. Thousands of man-made waterways cross picturesque meadows and three percent of Spreewalders work in the pickle industry.

So it should be no surprise that the massive changes that have occurred in Germany have been slower to touch this quiet corner. Day-trippers flock to the Spreewald to float the calming canals in canoes called Kanadiers or ride in the punting boats with full tables and civilized crystal ashtrays.

And along with being gorgeous, the mineral-rich conditions, high humidity in air and soil and water high in iron oxides are perfect for pickles. There are only about 20 local farmers producing 1 million jars or over 2,000 tons of Spreewaldgurken per day. That is about half the pickled cucumbers sold in Germany! 

And what is a day trip without a filling meal? Spreewald doesn't let you down with an assortment of delicacies like their version of Blutwurst (blood sausage), Grützwurst, with Sorbian sauerkraut and a side of Leinölkartoffeln (Flaxseed oil potatoes).

But the undisputed favorite is the pickle. There is a museum dedicated to it (more info below), they appear in odd products like Senf (mustard) and liquor, and they adorn key chains and clothing. Gherkin are on sale everywhere in the Spreewald, even in little stands beside the canals with scheduled stops by the tour boats. If you miss them in their native environment of the Spreewald, Spreewaldgurken are sold in every grocery store. Choose from the three main varieties of saure Gurken with fresh dill (no vinegar or sugar), Senfgurken (pickled with mustard seeds, sugar, and vinegar) and Gewürzgurken (spices, sugar and vinegar).

Enjoy them as a side to a classic East German meal or sliced and laid across black bread with Schmalz (pork-fat).

History of the Spreewaldgurken

Dutch settlers probably first cultivated the Spreewald Gherkin as early as the 14th century. Growth was slow, but in the 19th-century author Theodor Fontane waxed poetic about the pickled treat in Wanderungen durch den Mark Brandenburg and he even had a barrel delivered to his home in Berlin each year.

The pickles' influence blossomed under the GDR with production by state-owned Spreewaldkonserve Golßen. The populace's devotion to the Spreewaldgurken is depicted in the popular 2003 movie, Good Bye, Lenin!, where the son desperately searches for the pickles after the sudden collapse of the GDR. 

In 1999, the Spreewaldgurken earned Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) meaning only those grown in the region can be marketed under that name. They also need to be devoid of artificial sweeteners (though "flavoring substances” are allowed).

In 2006, an organic version was introduced. Producers like Rabe from Lübbenau have been producing the pickles for over 100 years, but have recently started experimenting with alternative flavors like sweet chili and curry.

Gurkenradweg and Gurken Museum

Spreewaldgurken are harvested in July and August. Bright green crops can be spotted all over the Spreewald, and in particular along the Gurkenradweg (gherkin cycle path). A 260 km trail through the Spreewald, this bike path is beautiful for much of the year but is truly glorious during these high months.

Start your ride in the larger town of Lübbenau by exploring the Gurkenmeile, a row of stalls darting off from the harbor and offering all things gherkin (note that this is often closed Sunday). Sample the many wares and buy several varieties to take home.

Mount up to ride through the fields and marvel at the 40,000 tons of cucumber whizzing by. Riders can also see the processing plants where the humble cucumber becomes the pickle by fermenting in airtight fiberglass containers or stainless steel tanks for around five weeks. The product is then preserved in either vinegar and sugar with optional additions of onion, dill, horseradish, and Gewürz (herbs) or saltwater brine to make the Salzgurke.

About 15 minutes away is Lehde, a fishing-based village with more tourists than locals. Here Spreewald life can be explored in its purest form. Along with quaint homes which receive their mail by boat, there is the temple to the pickle, the Gurkenmuseum (An der Dolzke 6, 03222 Lehde). For a €2 entry fee, visitors can go on a self-tour of 19th-century village life in the Spreewald. An apartment displays a bedroom with a picture of the many Gherkin queens who have won the crown in the annual Gurkentag festival.

Farming equipment offers more information about the process and farming in the region.

If you want to know everything Gurken, there is a guided pickle tour of Lübbenau. It is available in a variety of languages every day (except Sunday) from May until September. Tours can be arranged at the tourist information office and begin at 10:00 for a duration of 7 hours of walking, talking, eating pickle fun.

Spreewälder Gurkentag

If you want to experience the pinnacle of Spreewaldgurken-ness, go to the annual festival of Spreewälder Gurkentag. Now in its 18th year, the town of Golßen stages the festival of pickle-based performances, crafts, market and - of course - Gurken eating. There will be over 100 vendors and a royal King and Queen to preside over the festivities. 

  • Dates: August 13th - 14th, 2016
  • Hours: 10:00 - 18:00
  • Directions: RE2 from Berlin to Lübbenau (Spreewald) and walk northwest into town. Train takes about 1 hour.