For many, October is the month of sausages, beer and sauerkraut. Oktoberfest as we like to call it. Forget about pumpkins, it is beer and sausages folks! And sauerkraut. Although, in the spirit of full disclosure, no matter how much I love, love, love Oktoberfest, and all the magnificent food (and booze) that come with it, despite working really hard on warming up towards sauerkraut, it will take another decade or so until I am finally ready to fully embrace its glory.
I bet that my entire generation feels the same.
Kids who grew up in Serbia in the seventies and eighties ate a lot of sauerkraut. This, as far as I was concerned, was not a good thing. I was never into acidic foods, no kid ever is, but being a good solder, I did my very best to please Mom and Dad, and always gave my finest shot when forced to eat pickled delicacies that ruled our diet in the winter. But sauerkraut, man, sauerkraut was a whole new level of acidic. Imagine kimchi times 10 to the power of 23, imagine the essence of all pickled vegetables combined into one, and all the fermented foods of this world united in their sourness. That's how sauerkraut tasted like, and not in a good way.
Every time I made a face at a sauerkraut dish on my plate, my dad would tell the story of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. "Admiral Nelson used to carry sauerkraut on his ship to fight scurvy," Mr. Stan would say, his voice resonating with the significance of that historic fact, then, in somewhat more casual voice, he would continue to throw the pearls of wisdom at me, "and just in case you are not aware of it, fermented cabbage is really good for your stomach and your digestion." (An important pause followed, before reaching the climax.) "Fermented cabbage fights ulcers!"
"I am ten years old Dad," I would reply, with a face as sour as the sour cabbage on my plate, "I do not have ulcers." (And probably never will given the amount of sauerkraut we ate.)
Before humanity embraced refrigeration, frozen foods, and global supply chains, many countries and many nations resorted to fermenting foods to improve the quality of their nutrition during winter months. Being a poor country of farmers and peasants, on a rugged piece of Balkans, terrorized by cold winds and winter chills (which left no other food available but tubers and dried beans), Serbs embraced the practice like no other country and quickly turned sour cabbage into their national food. Forget about pathetic shredded stuff other nations like to make -- we preserved whole heads of cabbage! This elevated our sour-cabbage-based diet to the new heights of diversity: we used it as a salad (dusted festively with sprinkles of Hungarian paprika from Horgosh), we stuffed it into dried peppers, we rolled sarmas (a version of stuffed cabbage made with fermented leaves), and we made podvarak, my nemesis (a dish of chopped sauerkraut and onions, simmered on a stove for a long time and then finished in the oven to caramelize). We cooked soups and stews and side dishes. We used sour cabbage as a filling for pies and savory pastries.
Not only that we championed a new method of preservation, we also turned it into a ritual; come October, the piles of cabbage on the Kalenić market in Belgrade grew as tall as the highest apartment buildings, the cellars in which families stored their cabbage goodness were dusted and cleaned, the gigantic barrels used for preservation were taken out to be washed, and it was time to roll! Literally, because come October, the cabbage heads rolled in the streets of Belgrade.
Making sour cabbage has always been a man's job, and a job every head of household did with great pride and sense of responsibility, because no respectable household ever bought sour cabbage in the store. The preservation project started with a designated trip to the market. It was always a day-worth journey, because only the very best cabbage heads -- medium sized and firm, with leaves tightly pressed and the core as small as possible -- would do. It took a lot of picking and choosing to select the heads worthy of being immortalized via fermentation, even in the smallest of preservation efforts. And our efforts were never on the small scale -- Balkan winters can be long and the fear of hunger can be terrifying, therefore filling up a 200-litter barrel with sour cabbage was not uncommon. That was a lot of cabbages to pick and choose.
The ritual continued at home, where external leaves and cores were removed by hand, heads were salted generously and arranged neatly in the barrel. The barrel was then filled up with salted water and topped with a heavy stone. The stone pressed on the cabbages and prevented them from floating, thereby creating an environment suitable for anaerobic digestion, or as the common folks would put it -- bacterial growth. Big cities are not exactly the best place to look for stones and finding an appropriate stone often proved more challenging than making a decent barrel of preserved cabbage; once a household got hold of the stone, they treasured it, cherished it and kept it forever. Good stone lasted for generations.
The ritual did not end with the stone. For weeks to come, the man of the house, the Master of Fermentation, would make frequent trips to the basement and attend to his baby. This involved flushing the liquid from the bottom of the barrel, and then pouring the liquid back on top. After about two or so weeks into the preservation, the salty water, the brine, raso as we call it, became fragrant with the cabbages and bursting with the aromas of good bacteria it gave birth to. Dad and I would run into the basement with a pitcher, pour some liquid into it and drink it like a juice. It was pale yellow, slightly cloudy and tingly on a tongue, and more delicious than anything I remember.
Come October, entire apartment complexes smelled of sour cabbage. Slightly mossy, slightly sulfuric, briny, with a faint touch of sweetness, this smell would find its way out of the cellars and up the stairwell and into the elevators. It was shy, but persistent, refusing to leave as long as the barrels were full, until March, sometimes April, because, afraid of hunger, folks made a lot of sauerkraut.
The barrels grew bigger ever year.
And then they disappeared. Today, no one I know back home preserves cabbages anymore. Even the most respected heads of households buy them in the supermarket -- if they buy them at all, because sauerkraut is not so fashionable anymore. Today we eat tomatoes and watercress in the winter, today mangoes and papayas are all the rave, while preserved cabbage lingers on the edge of existence. There is a price we pay for this age of plenty. As new foods and new customs arrive from places faraway, the old traditions are lost. I hate to see them go -- it feels like loosing a piece of childhood. No matter how much I opposed the caramelized sauerkraut back in the old days, it is a dish I would like to preserve. And now that I think about it, once you add to it a drop of honey, a handful of prunes and a sweet apple, it really is not that acidic anymore.
Caramelized Sauerkraut with Apples, Prunes, Herbs and Honey
* 3 lb sauerkraut
* 2 medium yellow onions, minced
* 2 baking apples (such as Gala, Fuji, Empire or Cortland), shredded
* 1/2 cup sunflower oil
* 8 cloves of garlic, cut in quarters
* 16 prunes, cut in half
* 8-12 thyme sprigs, finely chopped
* 1 rosemary sprig, finely chopped
* 1/2 cup honey
* 2 cups white wine
* 3 bay leaves
* salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350F.
In a large casserole or Dutch oven combine the oil with the onions over medium heat (alternatively you can heat the oil first, but starting the onions in cold oil will give them mellower taste). Simmer the onions for about 10 minutes, until soft.
Add the sauerkraut, garlic, prunes, herbs and one cup of wine to the casserole, mix well and simmer on medium low heat, for about 10 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Add the remaining wine, honey and bay leaves and simmer on the stove, stirring often, for another 35 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed and sauerkraut is soft and dark golden. The will prunes begin to fall apart. (If the sauerkraut becomes too dry during cooking, before it turns golden, add a drop or two of water.)
Add a cup of water to the casserole and transfer to the oven. Bake for about an hour, until all the water has evaporated and the top layer is nicely caramelized. (If the sauerkraut becomes dry during cooking, feel free to add a bit more water.)
Let the sauerkraut sit in the refrigerator one to two days before serving. This is absolutely critical, so be patient.
Serve at room temperature.