Friday 25 September 2015

A Sauerkraut Spritz because why not?

It’s noisy and your eyes need a moment to adjust to the dark. There’s no room for elbows and people keep jostling past, the jostle all the more so a jostle because of the full skirts and aprons. Everything is dark wood, copper or printed cloth. And antler. There’s a lot of antler if you count up all the buttons. You smell onions frying and yeasty clouds of beer. It’s cold outside and you feel your face flushing from the warmth, from the beer. Those skirts are swishing back and fourth from the kitchen, their matrons handling big trays laden with heavy food. A bowl is placed is front of you. The cold has made you hungry and everyone around you is already eating. Inside it is a mass of steaming bacon and other pig’s anatomy, slivers of cabbage, juniper berries, bay leaf and thickly cut apple. You have primeval German brot (bread) on the side and are already spooning out yellow senf (mustard) with one of those little wooden spoons. 

This is sauerkraut. At least, this is sauerkraut as I knew it. But there’s more to this scene now. Something a little harder to stuff into a neatly labelled box of smells and associations. 

At home, I’d say we ate a reasonable amount of sauerkraut; a German hangover via my grandparents with roots that don’t go too much deeper than my last name. When I moved to Amsterdam three years ago, however, I started eating it for breakfast. Not immediately, not regularly and not intentionally, but it happened. I’ve eaten sauerkraut for breakfast more than once, i.e., not by accident, which might happen to anyone… once. But I’d never eaten it cold. That is, not until a particular, forkless incident on a ferry somewhere in the North Sea nudged the ball and started it rolling.

That ferry was headed to Texel, a Dutch island known for its sheep and lighthouses. It was January, a period in which, apparently, no one other than the island’s inhabitants (and, on this occasion, Alex and I) use the ferry; those waterproofed souls oblivious to the driving rain hammering the boat as they catch up on the latest mainland goings-on and sip their too-sweet hot chocolates. No trip to the Caribbean then, but it did mean we had a choice seat at which to enjoy our lunch, something of an almost spiritual importance to me. Mealtime that is. Not an event to be interrupted. 

No, I have barbecued on the doorstep in the rain, in a cow barn in during a storm and in the snow, wrapped up, under an umbrella. I have been stopped at airport security and stripped of my liquids and gels, the ‘liquids’ being – the first time – a lentil curry; the second, a pot of yoghurt, later to be added to a (separately packed) rhubarb compote; and the third time, a more-solid-than-liquid stew. I have shaved off pieces of cheese with a credit card in the car and have smashed potatoes with a plastic bag over my foot in a pot on the floor. I keep a small saltshaker in my bag when I travel. All in the name of meals. 

Rituals matter but cutlery, not so much. We’d taken along a leftover of sauerkraut, packed it up and forgot the forks. All I remember is that it was cold, it was great, it was a beginning. 

The real beginnings of sauerkraut can be traced from the Romans to northern China, where it is known as suan cai or, sour vegetable. This version was made with napa cabbage, pickled with rice wine, and eaten as an accompaniment to rice and meat – not breakfast but there are records of this being lunch for the men who built the Great Wall. It is Genghis Khan and his Mongol Empire that brought this particular method of pickling cabbage West and, as it swept through China and beyond, conquering both peoples and their techniques, eventually replaced the rice wine with salt and the napa cabbage with cabbages common to Europe. Genghis Khan’s successors got as far West as Eastern Europe where sauerkraut as I used to know it, lives on. (A story without as good documentation is that of the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa being preserved in a barrel of sauerkraut and brought back to Germany after he drowned in a river in Armenia whilst leading a crusade... But that’s more of an aside.)

Sauerkraut got its sea legs when it became the staple of Europe’s seafarers, filling bellies and staving off scurvy. With its high vitamin C content and no real need for refrigeration (lactobacillus bacteria converts the sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid which is preservative), it was the obvious thing to bring along if you were so inclined to make the 3000 odd mile voyage to the U.S. But it went further than that, geographically speaking. Alongside the Jewish, German, Swiss and Dutch communities enjoying sauerkraut stateside in parallel with their Eastern counterparts, there are, to this day, also South Americans fermenting their cabbage and calling it kraut. These are the Surinamese living in Suriname, a Dutch colony until the 1970s (with Guyana and French Guyana as neighbours).

Back home, and we left off at our beginning to experiment with sauerkraut. Inspired by our own over-seas adventure on the ferry, we started cooking it in order to eat it cold and, in doing so, discovered a whole new plane of tastes. All of a sudden it wasn’t German. It wasn’t Dutch. It could belong to any kitchen if you added the right spices. So we made ours Surinamese for the night, a kitchen that is still heavily rooted in Dutch eating culture, just as Dutch food has a leg in what’s being eaten in Suriname. But there’s much more to the kitchen than that. With influences also extending from the African, Chinese, Jewish, Indonesian and Portuguese cuisines, Surinamese food is a melting pot, fragrant (unlike that of the Dutch), spicy (ditto), meaty and bright. Labourers in Suriname made the dishes they knew from home with the local ingredients available in their new, tropical and coastal land. We started making what we knew, their way. 

Now you could stick it on a roti (a type of pancake borrowed from the Indian kitchen), or eat it with hot sauce. Now it was crunchy, zesty, and peppery; cabbage propped up by juniper berries and peppercorns. Now it really made sense cold - straight out of the fridge cold. It was newly exotic, it was summer. And just as one thing will have led to another for the people who made Suriname their home, it did so too for us. Because soon we were making sauerkraut… without the fats. 

And by that point, you may as well keep going. So we have. We’ve stuck it in dumplings, caramelised it, grated ginger through it and sprinkled chillies over it. We’ve topped toast with it, put hot sauce on it, honey underneath it, and even tried a recipe that called for tomatoes and cumin... which made me think about tipping a bit of kraut juice into a Bloody Mary… As I said, one thing led to the next. The next thing was making it vegan. 

What’s so great about this little journey, other than all the new tastes we now know and the freedom to try what we like, is that I no longer have to wait all year to eat sauerkraut. Because believe me, for all this mixing honey with kraut talk, I’m a traditionalist: if it was hot outside, it wasn’t kraut weather. Now, it’s never not. 

Note on the recipes

To celebrate a summer filled with all things kraut, here are three recipes that stuck with us throughout our crazier days of experimentation. Two happened by chance, the third comes out of the arsenal of my friend, Yuki’s, toolbox: her grandmother’s cookbook.

Note on making kraut

Keep an eye to the end of the summer when, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll be able to harvest your own cabbage to make your own sauerkraut. In fact, you can make ‘kraut’ with any vegetable – peppers, turnips, beets, carrots, radishes, celery, a mix. And you should: no sweat. Here’s how, by hand:

1. Shred your chosen vegetable and put in a large bowl.
2. Salt it very well. Make sure to use a non-iodized salt and keep tasting as you go. Mix and salt, mix and salt. 
3. Massage the shreds so that the salt is worked into them. Squeeze and bash them around so that they release their own liquids, which will combine with the salt to form the brine. To test whether it’s ready, give a handful a squeeze. If it’s juicy, you’re on track. This may take a while but you don’t want to leave a leaf unturned. 
4. Once the shreds are good and liquidy, pack them into a glass or ceramic container (make sure not to use anything with metal). Pack it down tightly so that everything is covered by the salty brine you’ve created. If there’s not enough liquid, dissolve 1 tablespoon (again, non-iodized) salt in a cup of water and add. The kraut must stay submerged, as the brine is what will ferment the vegetable and prevent it from moulding.
5. Place a plate over the kraut to keep it all pushed down below the liquid level. It’s important that this plate covers the whole surface area if not most of it. Place something heavy on top of the plate to keep it weighed down.
6. Place a towel over the container to keep out dust/anything else and pit it in a cool place. 
7. How long should you leave it? This is totally according to taste. The vegetable will start fermenting in about 24 hours. Give it at least that and then you can start tasting. Obviously, the longer it’s left (let’s say 3-4 weeks), the punchier. If there’s a little mould on the top, scrape it off – it’s natural.
8. Once you’re happy with it, transfer the kraut into a jar and keep in the fridge to stop the fermentation process. 


To nibble:

Cold kraut on dark, toasted rye with apple and agave syrup 

A mix of sweet and sour, crunch and crisp.

Dark rye bread
Sauerkraut (just a pinch)
A sweet, red apple 
Agave syrup to drizzle

Thinly slice the rye bread and toast. Rinse the sauerkraut to rid it of some of its salt and place a pinch of it on top of each toast. Top with finely sliced apple and drizzle with a little syrup. 

To share:

Summer sauerkraut salad with shaved fennel, blood orange and pistachio

Serves four

1 pound of sauerkraut
1 medium fennel bulb
4 medium blood oranges (can be substituted with 2 ruby red grapefruit)
¼ cup pistachio nuts

Rinse the sauerkraut and put in a serving bowl.

Cut the peel from the oranges (or grapefruit if substituting) so that you also remove the white pith. Using a very sharp knife, cut sections of fruit from the membrane over the bowl of kraut. Squeeze the remaining membrane over the bowl to use all the juice.

Finely slice the fennel starting from the bottom up. Chop further so that the pieces aren’t too much larger than the kraut and mix through kraut.

Roughly chop the pistachios and sprinkle on top. Dish out and enjoy. 

To drink:

Sauerkraut spritz

Have your sauerkraut and drink it too. A sharp, tangy cocktail with aquavit as its base.

For 1 cocktail

1 oz. sauerkraut juice 
1.5 oz. aquavit
Club soda to top off
Sprig of dill to garnish

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