My wife Anna has a has a postcard mailed to Bulgaria from Detroit, Michigan in 1919. On the postcard George Daskalov, her great great uncle, writes to his mom, among other things: “Please start the sauerkraut and find for me a good wife.” His mother found for him a wife, they married, and he brought her to Detroit where they lived for the remainder of their lives. We are reasonably sure that his mother started the sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut is one of many fermented foods still commonly made in Bulgarian homes. Another commonly fermented delight in Bulgaria, Romania and other parts of the Balkans is turshia. Unlike sauerkraut, turshia involves a number of vegetables including cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, Hungarian peppers as well onions and green tomatoes.1 Here, I offer an easy recipe for German sauerkraut. I say German sauerkraut because, while the ingredients of Bulgarian and Balkan sauerkraut differ little from the German, Bulgarians ferment their cabbage in large chunks while German kraut is shaved or sliced. In the Balkans larger chunks or leaves of cabbage are preferred so that the fermented leaves can be used to make Sarmi, fermented cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, meats and spices.
Home fermentation is an ancient means to preserve food throughout the year. Fermentation brings probiotic health benefits as well as an attractive crunchiness and ‘zing’ to cabbage as well as the other vegetables put in crock. The pleasant tartness or ‘zing’ of the sauerkraut results from the transformation of the vegetable sugars into carbon dioxide. 2 While fermentation is tasty and offers health benefits the process also reinforces a sense of seasonality. For those who make fermentation a common practice the vegetables of the garden are picked and a percentage will be set aside to remain throughout the winter to be preserved through canning and fermentation. In Bulgaria sauerkraut and turshia have a wintertime shelf life. In Bulgaria they say when Baba Marta, Grandmother March, comes on march first she farts in the turshira. 3
At a certain point in the United States, as well as most of Western Europe and the Northern Hemisphere, food became something to be had principally in the can, freezer or box. That point was well established when the dust had settled after the second world war when the mechanization of society as well as food became the key in which late modernity functioned. Because vegetables are available throughout the year in supermarkets fermentation is no longer a necessity. Maybe even 25 years ago fresh vegetables were rarely available and most families in Bulgaria routinely fermented vegetables. Now, Bulgarians have access to greenhouse grown vegetables but still commonly ferment. Because fermentation was the principal means to preserve vegetables for the winter around the world we might assume that food fermentation has a deep relationship with humankind. It does.
A brief internet search will reveal evidence of fermentation dating back 8, 9 and 13 thousand years ago. People in Caucasian Georgia made beer and wine through fermentation eight thousand years ago.4 The Scandinavians fermented fish for meals off season nine thousand years ago and the earliest evidence of fermentation, to date, is beer production; the remains of which were found in a cave near Haifa Israel 5 These dates could be a conservative estimate of our earliest use of fermentation. We are in an era when early dates for cultural practices are being routinely pushed back into the past. Pottery permits preservation and record but other common food containers like pig bladders or gourds will have left little or no trace. The history of fermentation parallels domestication and its function; the need to make resources dependable. Some yeasts and bacteria within the process of fermentation were found to be useful while others were discarded. Thus the fermentation starters that remain and prized in a family for hundreds of years for sourdough bread or cultivated yeasts for wine that ensure a good, repeatable, wine.
In recent days, however, many of us are reconsidering the mechanized economy and food supply. How we have loosened the bindings between food, home and season aligns with a stewing crisis in the modern story. While incredibly productive and creative modernity has not found a way to involve contemplation or reflection or to ask the question “what does it mean to be a creature of the world” within its functionality.
One way to reconstruct these important relations in the world is to revisit older common practice like the fermentation of food. This is also why I became interested in pottery and the relations that pottery can collect in its making and in its use in the home. In this spirit I offer my reader a sauerkraut recipe.
The recipe that follows is easy and normally foolproof. What you will need: 1. A sauerkraut crock. 2. Masher. I use a wooden hand masher made by my grandfather. 3. About one head of cabbage. 4. About three tablespoons of salt. 5. about two tablespoons of caraway seeds and other spices as desired. If available I add juniper berries to taste. 5. Water (maybe).
First, shred cabbage. When making sauerkraut was commonplace a cabbage shredding board was sold. Sometimes they can be found in a rural antique store. Second step, mix salt with spices in a small bowl. Leave to the side. Third, throw shredded cabbage into pot to line the bottom and it fills about to about a three inch height. Sprinkle salt and spice mix over the top and then mash. This should compress to about one half inch on the bottom of the pot. Throw in a next layer of cabbage and once again cover with salt and spice mixture and mash. Repeat this procedure until the cabbage mixture has reached to a level just below the ceramic water seal. Fourth, place the pair of weights (each a semicircle) on top of your mashed sauerkraut to be. Fifth and final step, pour water into the circular water seal reservoir and place ceramic cover on pot. Make sure the circumference of the lid is sealed in water. As the cabbage begins to ferment air will be able to escape but air will not be able to enter the vessel. Check back the next day. The cabbage should be completely covered in the water that has been drawn out from the mashing and salt. Sometimes the cabbage will not have the water content needed to make kraut without adding additional water. If cabbage is exposed to the air, add water. Keep weights on the cabbage to ensure that no cabbage is exposed to the air. A zesty sauerkraut will result in a week but you may be able to taste a kraut taste in about three days.
- The process for making turshia differs from sauerkraut in that vinegar is added to the water, in which the vegetables ferment, and the water is circulated daily. I hope to offer a turshia recipe in a future post.
- Health Line, online article on sauerkraut
- On Baba Marta day Bulgarians and others as well as those in Northern Macedonia and Romania place white and red Pizho and Penda dolls on trees and wear woven red and white bracelets. The bracelets are removed with the first tree blooms or a crane is seen flying overhead. https://bnt.bg/news/the-bulgarian-tradition-of-martenitsa-179851news.html
- Staff. Archeo News. 28 Dec. 2008. https://www.stonepages.com/news/archives/000498.html accessed 3 Feb. 2022.
- Source for early fish fermentation in Scandinavia is: Kennedy, Maev. “Rotten luck: archaeologists hail ‘unique’ Mesolithic fermented fish find.”in The Guardian. 9 Feb. 2016.
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/09/rotten-luck-archaeologists-hail-unique-mesolithic-fermented-fish-find. Accessed 3 Feb. 2022 10:16pm. Source for early beer making found near Haifa Israel is: Staff. “’World’s oldest brewery’ found in cave in Israel, say researchers.” in BBC News. 15 Sept. 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-45534133 Accessed 3 Feb. 2022. 10:21pm