The Pennsylvania TV station PCN interviewed me recently. Francine Schertzer, the program host, asked me how the fall of the Berlin Wall had changed Germany’s food scene. I said there had been tremendous change for the good for East Germans. No more shortages and standing in line for basic foods. When the West German Deutsche Mark was introduced in East Germany on July 1, 1990, supermarket shelves in East Germany filled up overnight with goods that East Germans had never known under the now-fallen socialist regime.
I later thought about that question some more – how in old GDR cookbooks I found lots of East European dishes such as Borscht, Solyanka, and Letscho. Those cookbooks not only reflect the limited ingredients that average mortals had to make to do with behind the Iron Curtain (the party big shots had access to almost everything, as Anya von Bremzen describes so well for the USSR in her great book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking) but also the country’s geopolitical orientation. And that clearly went eastwards, towards the Soviet Republic and other brotherly communist nations, with dishes such as Kubanischer Kabeljau (Cuban Cod).
In a GDR cookbook entitled Unser großes Kochbuch: From Frühstück bis zum Abendbrot from 1984 I found a recipe for chilled sorrel soup, Although it is not called that way, it is most likely a version of the Russian or Ukrainian Shav, a sorrel soup that can be served hot or cold.
Meanwhile the first cookbook I as a “West German” owned (and still use, by the way), Das große Buch vom Essen und Trinken, first published in 1982, is brimming with colorful recipes from Denmark to Indonesia, and with ingredients from all over the world: avocado, frozen vongole and deep-sea shrimp, wild rice, marsala wine… With the exception of a lone recipe for Borscht, East European cuisine is virtually absent from the book. Now you can argue that a book by Germany’s leading gourmet magazine Essen und Trinken is not representative and that might well be the case. Note however that East European dishes are also strikingly absent from Dr. Oetker, the more basic classic German cookbook.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then the Internet, everything has changed. Recipes from every world cuisine are accessible online in the remotest corner of the planet, and those who can afford it can have ingredients of all sorts shipped to them virtually anywhere.
I still find it fascinating to browse old German cookbooks, and I snap them up at whenever I find them. They are not just a collection of recipes; they provide a lively and very tangible view of life during a certain time period.
And there are other people like me who appreciate holding a real book in their hands, too. That GDR cookbook is now back in print in its original version from 1970.
Chilled Sorrel Soup (Kalte Sauerampfersuppe)
Until a decade or two ago, sorrel was one of the hopelessly old-fashioned herbs that in former West Germany only quirky foragers and home gardeners knew and appreciated. Thus sorrel recipes were absent from most cookbooks.
I was lucky; I had my first taste of sorrel as a kid in the 1970s. My mother had a full-time job and usually after school I would go to my grandmother’s. When she was away, it was arranged for me to have lunch downstairs with the owners of the two-family home where we lived.
Frau Altert’s cooking was rather on the frugal side, mostly vegetarian, and often contained things she grew in her garden behind the house. She made sorrel soup and I liked it a lot. She also made dishes with green spelt (Grünkern) which was equally unusual at the time and which has since also seen a comeback in Germany. The only thing I remember not liking was the confection she made with the quince from her quince tree, but that is a different story which I told before here.
Sorrel is no-fuzz carefree perennial herb. It also grows in colder climate and hence found its way into different East European soups.
While sorrel is usually best in the spring, this year we had abundant rain and a relatively cool summer weather so the sorrel plant in my herb garden kept producing lots of young crisp leaves.
I took some cues from the sorrel soup in the GDR cookbook but came up with my own recipe. In many recipes, the sorrel is cooked way too long for my taste. Especially when it’s fresh, a couple of minutes are enough, just until it wilts.
3 ounces (100 g) young sorrel leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 medium yellow starchy potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch (1.25 cm) cubes
5 cups (1.2 l) good vegetable broth (preferably homemade, see how to make it from vegetable scraps on my gardening blog).
1 egg, lightly beaten
A dash of tarragon or another herb vinegar
Sour cream and julienned cucumber for garnish
1. Wash and dry the sorrel. Remove the stems. Stack the leaves and cut them into narrow strips. Set aside.
2. In a large non-reactive saucepan (no aluminum), heat the olive oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until translucent. Add the potato and cook. stirring, for 3 minutes until the potato starts to soften. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat and cook over medium to low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the potato is so soft that the pieces easily break apart.
3. Add the sorrel and bring the soup back to a boil, uncovered. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the sorrel is fully wilted. Puree the soup to a smooth consistency with a stick blender, or in batches in the food processor. Return the soup to the pan.
4. Lightly beat the egg in a small bowl. Add a few tablespoons of the soup and stir to combine. Repeat this a couple of times until you have about a cup of liquid. Whisk this into the soup. Do not add the egg to the soup directly without tempering it, or it will curdle.
5. Return the soup to the heat and cook it over very low heat until it thickens, stirring constantly. Season with salt, pepper, and a dash of vinegar.
6. Let cool to room temperature, them refrigerate for several hours. Serve chilled, garnished with a dollop of sour cream and julienned cucumber.
Makes 6 servings