It’s cabbage-picking time at last; after six months of tender care, this takes only minutes for the gardener, while generating hours of work for the cook.
We preserve most of our cabbages as ‘sauerkraut’ (literally, in German, ‘sour cabbage’) or its spicier Latin American cousin – cortido. This preserving happens via a process called ‘lacto-fermentation’ that allows vegetables (such as cabbage, green tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers, beets, turnips, herbs, eggplant, onion, pumpkin and carrot) to be preserved for long periods without the use of freezers or canning machines. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying bacteria that are found on the surface of all living things.
Sauerkraut has been known in Europe since Roman times, though the Chinese were fermenting cabbage 6000 years ago. Sauerkraut is a great source of Vitamin C and who knows what else; the Roman emperor Tiberius was reputed to carry a barrel of sauerkraut with him during his long voyages to the Middle East because the Romans knew the lactic acid it contained protected them from intestinal infections [from the book ‘Nourishing Traditions’ by Sally Fallon].
The lacto-fermentation process uses whey from raw milk rather than vinegar as the preservative.
Once the cabbages are picked and the tough outer leaves peeled away, the sweet and tender inner core is grated (in this household) very finely using a German ‘cabbage slicer’ (Krautreibe) held inside a stainless-steel bucket. Our wooden slicer was likely given to the cook’s mother on her wedding day, which makes it almost sixty years old – and its still sharp, just like my mother-in-law!
For regular sauerkraut (on the right, below), we add sea salt, whey (from cheese making, yogurt or sour milk), and optional chopped herbs such as society garlic, spring onions and chives. For cortido (on the left, below), add instead of herbs grated carrot, finely sliced onions, dried oregano and red pepper flakes.
And now comes the hard part (the gardener’s contribution to the process); the ingredients are pounded in the bottom of the bucket using a wooden pounder to break down the cell walls of the cabbage and release the juices. This takes 10-15 minutes per bucketful – the juices can be seen at the bottom of the bucket.
The resultant mix is squeezed down into wide-mouthed jars, to allow the juices to cover the mix to the top of the jar. These jars of sauerkraut are then stored in our cellar (or somewhere else that is cool but not cold), and will be good for the next year while a new crop of cabbage is grown.
We grow a traditional German cabbage – called ‘Filderspitzkraut’ (‘pointy field cabbage’) – for making sauerkraut; this is a large conical cabbage weighing in at a colossal 5-10 kg. I’m quietly distributing seeds for this special cabbage to other seed-savers, who then go on to embarrass me by producing even larger specimens than my own!
Red Dutch cabbage – grown during summer rather than winter – can also be used to make sauerkraut.