Reflections from the field: Linking the past with the present through pickling, fermenting, and food preservation in Gdańsk, Poland.
PhD candidate Ola Gracjasz writes about fermentation practices in Gdańsk, Poland.
The work of the ethnographer has the advantage of taking one to places and situations that, otherwise, one might not have been able to find oneself in. While doing my 15 months fieldwork in Gdańsk, Poland, I visited places and met people that would have not crossed my path otherwise. One of such events were fermentation, pickling and food preservation workshop.
Pickling and fermenting as a culinary tradition
Fermentation is not something I had never heard of, on the contrary. I had just never imagined myself going to cooking workshops, as all the recipes I learned came through my family or other social networks. Being Polish by birth and having spent the first 18 years of my life there, fermented foods (known under the umbrella term “kiszonki”) constituted an integral part of my diet. Every spring my mum would soak young ground cucumbers in salted water for a few days to make “ogórki małosolne” (salted cucumbers). Every year my grandad, at least a week before Christmas Eve would prepare a special fermented beetroot juice which would later be used as a base for one of the most important Christmas dishes in my family, the beetroot soup called “barszcz”. Sauerkraut, that is fermented cabbage, was a typical side salad at my school canteen. Fermentation was an essential part of Polish cuisine long time before I was born. It was especially common after the Second World War and during PRL (Polska Republika Ludowa, Polish People’s Republic), when people experienced a ‘shortage economy’, and insecurities were looming large.
Things have changed. Poland is one of the most economically stable countries in the post-soviet bloc. As Joe Smith, Tomáš Kostelecký, and Petr Jehlička puts it, ‘it is worth noting that particularly in the Polish case the economy has been one of the most buoyant in the European Union, with some of the highest growth rates despite the wider economic recession since 2008, yet still we have found sustained practices of food self-production across all social groups” Smith et al 2015, 227). In cities like Gdańsk, women work outside the home, pursuing personal careers. Products availability is as wide as in any capitalist economy country. Why would anyone organize and take part in workshops about food preservation, pickling and fermenting? Interestingly, sociologist have observed that practices of food self-production in Central and Eastern European Countries are performed mainly by the middle classes, rather than working classes (Jehlička et al 2015, Stroe 2018).
Pickling and fermenting as a global trend
Fermented foods are experiencing a massive come-back, not only in Poland, but also in Europe and some other countries of the Global North. For example, goodfood.com reports that “Australia's kombucha industry is now worth of more than $200 million”. American food writer Sandor Katz has been touring around the USA, presenting his books on fermentation, spreading the knowledge on health benefits of fermented foods and educating the general public on home-made fermented products. The internet and especially social media are full of tutorials on, recipes of and health tips about fermentation in all its forms (including sourdough, kombucha, kimchi, etc.). In the same article published on goodfood.com the author Callan Boys shares that the reference to ‘gut health’ and ‘fermented foods’ on social media has significantly increased over the last two years. A YouTube video titled “The Complete Guide to Fermenting Every Single Vegetable” scores more then 1, 5 million views, reflecting this fermentation hype. The global pandemic and resulting lockdowns around the world have also contributed to people’s increased interest in at-home culinary practices and food self-preservation. Interestingly, skills and knowledge which used to be passed from mother to a daughter to grand-daughter are now a form of commodity, which can be branded and sold either as ready-made products or workshops.
Recasting tradition: a closer look on Gdańsk, Poland.
This rise of interest in food self-preservation goes hand in hand with a rising awareness on health benefits among Polish urban middle-classes. For example, Zakwasownia (from the word zakwas which literally means leaven or sourdough) is a company that sells jars and bottles of specialty food products with a particular attention to fermented and pickled vegan foods and drinks. It started as a family manufacture who sold their products mainly at an exclusive organic food market in Gdańsk and with the help of its affluent customers, the food market’s popularity, and successful advertising grew exponentially within just few years. It was set up by a couple who had worked in the corporate environment before. Combining the food preservation skills of their older family members with personal skills gained in a corporate context (branding, advertising, profiling and running social media) was crucial to developing their company. Magda, one of the founder of Zakwasownia said in an interview for Mint Magazine: “We started pouring the fermented beetroot juice into beautiful wine bottles and labelling it. Fermented beetroot juice from a wine glass is much more pleasant to drink”(Zaczęliśmy rozlewać zakwas w piękne butelki od wina i opatrywać etykietą. Zdecydowanie przyjemniej pije się zakwas z kieliszka.) (Mint). Their online promotion is filled with beautiful pictures and information about health benefits of consuming kiszonki.
Similarly, several women who took part in a pickling and fermenting workshop with me, told me that one of the main reasons for attending was to learn “natural and healthy ways of cooking” and to be “independent from the agro-industrial system”, whose products cannot be trusted. Knowing how to make fermented goods is a skill of self-sufficiency, desired out of the distrust towards the industrialized food production.
If there is something we can learn from Central and Eastern Europe is to look into traditional and local practices which are now being re-defined and re-cast as fashionable among urban-middle classes. While commodification of these domestic practices can be seen as a sign of roaring capitalism it can also be seen as an empowerment of those who are gaining these skills and those who teach those skills, mainly educated, working women living in cities.
https://www.goodfood.com.au/eat-out/news/how-the-godfather-of-fizzy-cabbage-made-us-all-love-sauerkraut-20200130-h1lfvs Accessed on the 21st of June 2021.
 Sandor Katz published several books on fermentation including: “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods” (2003), “Wild Fermentation: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cultural Manipulation” (2011), “The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World” (2012), and latest “Fermentation as Metaphor” (2020).
 https://www.goodfood.com.au/eat-out/news/how-the-godfather-of-fizzy-cabbage-made-us-all-love-sauerkraut-20200130-h1lfvs Accessed on the 21st of June 2021.