A new chapter of the cabbage story

Sauerkraut revival thanks to an innovative idea

by Heini Hofmann

All are singing the hymn of natural regional products. But more and more, in the roar of maximising production this is fading away. Just as many consumer-oriented village cheese dairies had to surrender to large-scale dairies, dito – in the Bernese “Chabisland” (cabbage country) Gürbetal – now also the long-established village sauerkraut-factories have been swallowed up by a large-scale remote enterprise.

Thanks to early and late ripening cabbage cultivars harvest lasts from August to December. (pictures: Royal-Sauerkraut AG)

But fortunately, every once in a while, new life springs up out of the ruins. Thus, as a counter-trend to the centralisation dictated by market pressure, new businesses have successfully become established for both milk and cheese as well as for beer in the niche sector. The same thing is now happening with sauerkraut.

“Chabisland” (cabbage country) Gürbetal

All over Switzerland, today about 200 farmers produce far more than one million cabbages on approximately 100 hectares, resulting in close to 6,000 tons of cabbage, and in a very small number of companies it is processed to about 3,300 tons of sauerkraut. In Switzerland cabbage is mainly cultivated in the Bernese Gürbetal, embedded between Längenberg and Belpberg, affectionately known in colloquial language as “Chabisland”, which is responsible for about 50 per cent of the crop. Bernese Seeland and the Zurich Oberland each grow about 25 per cent; a small remainder is spread over Baselland, Eastern Switzerland and Vaud.
In the past, the cabbages were transported from Gürbetal to the Bernese markets; the earliest reference of this can be found in Jeremias Gotthelf’s Tales from the Calendar of 1844: “And the heads of the Cabinet are growing like the cabbages in the Thurnenmoos.” But already in 1890, cabbages were cut, pressed in tubs, and in 1917 the Gürbetal cabbage planters organised a cooperative. But due to competition mergers and unfriendly take-overs occurred in the traditional sauerkraut factories; thereby the cooperative structures mutated into monopolies.

Taking the bull by the horns

Jürg Trachsel-Balsiger, the longtime dedicated director of the traditional “Surchruti”(Sauerkraut) Thurnen, declared solidarity with his employees when nearly all of them lost their jobs due to the monopolist’s restructuring measures. Instead of burying his head in the sand, in the neighbouring village Burgistein he founded – together with his wife and his two sons – a family business named “Royal Sauerkraut AG” specialised in niche production. He accomplished this quickly with a keen sense of the zeitgeist and without protection of the trade association.
This was possible as he built on twenty years of his own experience plus his wife’s family’s (who were natives of Mühlethurnen) three generations experience of cabbage growing. When the former model cooperative sauerkraut-factory Thurnen was set up, her ancestors were the pioneers, which is why the share certificate with number one – among others – was family owned. And he even went one step further by combining the entire value chain – cultivation, processing and marketing – in his own factory, creating new niche products and introducing a soil-conserving method for cabbage cultivation.

Ingenious cultivation technique

Jürg Trachsel did not rest on traditional production. He wanted to make creative new niche products, as well as to revolutionise cabbage cultivation via a sustainable method. He succeeded by means of the new strip-milling technique, which had already been successfully applied to corn, but not to cabbage. Instead of stressing the soil by deep ploughing the entire arable land, narrow strips of soil were milled into the field.
Thus, three tractor operations were reduced to one, resulting in less diesel consumption and the conservation of living micro beings, which led to an active soil which heats up more quickly and results with more yield. Additionally, this technique improved the nutrient and carbon balance of the agricultural business. Ergo: If, thanks to the use of strip-milling, deep soil cultivation is avoided over the years, this leads to a sustainable improvement of the soil structure with less erosion or capping, which translates into above-average yields of the successive crops. Win-win for farmers and soil!

Blue-violet cultures

Planting comes before harvesting. Just as in poultry farming, where hybrid chickens are used instead of purebred chickens, the basic generation is imported as day-old chicks, so the “Kabis” seedlings do not originate from native breeding, but mostly from the Netherlands. They are ordered in January and arrive at the beginning of May for planting. During about one month, early and late varieties are set, so that “Kabis” are ready for harvest from the beginning of August throughout December, and processing into sauerkraut can be staggered.
What a special sight, when in autumn in Gürbetal, which is named after the river Gürbe, the blue-violet cabbage fields colour the landscape, a colour shade unusual for peasant cultures! “Kabis” belongs to the cruciferous family and is a species of cabbage. Because the cabbages – called in Gürbetal “Chabisgringe” – reach on average a stately weight of 4 to 7 kilogrammes a sufficienty large distance between the individual seedlings of about half a metre must be maintained. Therefore, cabbage crops are particularly susceptible to erosion in spring when rainfall is heavy; hence the new cultivation technique.

An ancient process

During harvest, when “heads are rolling in Gürbetal”, manual work is still required today. Instead of using a horse-drawn cart as before, the white bullets are sent to the “Surchruti” by tractor for processing. Here, after removing the last green leaves, the cabbages are cored. Then they are machine cut into strips. This mass is carried by conveyor belt to the fermentation vats, where the “Kabis” is well distributed with addition of common salt (about 1.5%) and then pressed anaerobically and the weight of a water tank. After a few days, lactic acid fermentation (an anaerobic fermentation) starts, and after three to four weeks sauerkraut is ready.
Like many other culinary delicacies, such as wine and cheese, sauerkraut is also produced according to the ancient, tried-and-true principle of “processing through dosed spoiling”. During the process enzymes and microorganisms such as yeast fungi or lactic acid bacteria alter the food; – and thus become more durable and better in taste. 100 kilogrammes of “Kabis” yield approximately 50 kilogrammes of sauerkraut, which is sold either raw or cooked.

Customer is king

Not only the product of the “Kabis” family  Trachsel is called “Royal”, the customer is king too; in the family business the specific customer request is important. In addition to the standard products (sauerkraut raw or cooked in 500 g bags to 10 kg containers), sauerkraut batches are also cooked according to the customer’s recipe, for wholesale butchers or the traiteur of the wholesaler, as requested with proprietary labelling or in own containers. Another specialty is the “Presskabis”, which is used for Chabis sausages (Waadtländer specialty “Saucisson choux”). 100 kg “Kabis” yield – after blanching and pressing – 25 kg of dry matter. In addition to the sauerkraut, of course, also raw and cooked beets are offered.
But even small individual requests are met, as more and more families start to produce their own sauerkraut. Every 2nd Saturday in October and November from 9.00 am to 11.00 am you can experience the “Imachet” in Burgistein, on request combined with an aperitif and snack (www.royal-sauerkraut.ch). There they can buy whole cabbage heads or the cut cabbage with spices and process it at home. And notabene: The family business Trachsel is not only Swiss-Guarantee-certified, it also carries an organic line and benefits also from the nature park label Region Gantrisch.

Today’s trend

In short: This operation, which had the courage to become independent in the maelstrom of centralisation and developed a market niche, is in line with the time. The CEO of a major Swiss distributor recently made clear that he wanted to move away from globalisation concerning the food sector and look again for more proximity and familiar ways.
This is why wholesalers today increasingly prefer smaller direct marketers who provide the entire added value controllably in the same company instead of to anonymous industrial wholesalers. A development that positively culminates nota bene culinarily to the plates.     •
(Translation Current Concerns)

Sauerkraut corresponds exactly to today’s nutritional needs

HH. Sauerkraut actually meets today’s nutritional requirements: rich in lactic acid, minerals and vitamins A, B, C (therefore an important source of vitamin C, which outclasses even tropical fruits), very low in calories, practically fat-free, with little carbohydrates and protein, contains only salt as a preservative, an inexpensive local product, available throughout the year and very easy to prepare. Ergo: Sauerkraut is not a banal poor man’s winter vegetable, but an actual lifestyle convenience fitness product!
In recent years, sauerkraut has increasingly found its way into luxury gastronomy – as a soup or a light addition, with countless new creations, even as sorbet and ice-cream. However, the association of sauerkraut with pork ribs, bacon and sausage is deeply rooted in the soul of the people. Nevertheless, the average per capita consumption throughout Switzerland today is just over half a kilo.
Interestingly, much more choucroute is consumed in French-speaking Switzerland than in German-speaking Switzerland. Sauerkraut producer Jürg Trachsel is an exception: “I eat about ten kilogrammes of sauerkraut a year, preferably as part of the “Berner Platte”, and in summer also as a salad.” And he keeps it like Wilhelm Busch’s widow Bolte in “Max and Moritz”, who “enthuses especially about sauerkraut when it is warmed up again”...
(Translation Current Concerns)

Food and medicine

HH. The knowledge about the preventive and healing adverse reaction of sauerkraut is old: Sebastian Kneipp prescribed fresh sauerkraut for wounds and inflammations, herb priest Künzle prescribed it for refractory constipation. And even Wilhelm Busch joked: “Only he is smart and wise, who is looking at health. Think of the healthy food, eat sauerkraut daily.“ Furthermore, grandmothers knew that sauerkraut juice is not only a good stain remover, but that it makes the bread dough rise better. Recent studies show that sauerkraut not only promotes an intact intestinal flora, but also helps to prevent infections, gastric ulcers and cancer, to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, with the substance acetylcholine it acts as a natural antidepressant, while fibre and laxative effect take over the role of the slimming agent. In short: The fermented vegetable is food and medicine in one.
(Translation Current Concerns)

Two favourite recipes of the “cabbage family“

Sauerkraut with ragoût and boiled potatoes

Ingredients

-    800 g ragoût
from beef
-    some flour and butter
-    300 g carrots and celeriac

-    2 dl red wine
-    2 dl bouillon
-    1 larded onion, salt, pepper

Cooking

-    Fry meat in butter, dust with flour.
-    Remove from the pan. Fry vegetables and deglaze with wine.
-    Combine meat, bouillon and vegetables.
-    Spice up. Cook for 1½ to 2 hours.
-    Prepare boiled potatoes and sauerkraut. Serve.

Avant-garde sauerkraut aperitif hit

Ingredients

- 500 g Royal sauerkraut raw
- 1 can of thon (about 135 g)
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 onion chopped
- 4 cornichon chopped
- seasoning at will (salt, pepper)
– Toast

Cooking

- Drain the sauerkraut and chop it.
- Mash up thon and mayonnaise.
- Add the cornichon, onion and sauerkraut to the clay and mayonnaise and knead well by hand.
- Spread the mass on the toasted bread and garnish as desired.