Cabbage Days Are Here Again

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Cabbages have been cultivated and consumed in what is now Germany since the 1st century AD but what is it that generated the Germans’ enduring love affair with a mundane, wind-generating vegetable?

OK, their health-promoting properties were discovered by the Romans, our great grandmothers knew a half-cut cabbage was the most sensible way to clean carpets and opera singers insisted cabbage cleansed their throats to improve purity of voice.

But over the centuries, the truly infatuated Germans have elevated cabbages to almost celebrity status, honouring them with festivals and sparking the curious phenomenon of cabbage tourism.

Known as Kraut or Kohl, cabbage is the cornerstone of the national cuisine – red cabbage, white cabbage, green cabbage and the famous fermented sauerkraut, together with spuds and dumplings, are staples on every creditable German dinner table.

An indication of the significance of the humble cabbage at all levels of German life is the traditional and apparently effective threat hurled at mischievous kids, “you shall have water in your cabbage and go barefoot to bed”.

At the other end of the social spectrum, former chancellor Helmut Kohl set a post-war record staying in the job for 16 years. Where else would voters consistently re-elect a leader called Helmut Cabbage?

So where in Germany are cabbages at the pinnacle of their celebrity status? Dithmarschen, that’s where.

Dithmarschen is a region of lush, flat agricultural land in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein facing the North Sea between Hamburg and the Danish border where rural life still rules.

This is said to be the largest exclusively cabbage-growing region in Europe producing 80 million of them every year in fields that spread across 2,800 hectares.

In summer when the cabbages are coming to a head, Dithmarschen becomes a popular tourist destination for farmstay holidays, horse riding, golf, cycling, walking on the green seaside dykes and mudflats and for sampling the fresh seafood from the North Sea available at its two pretty fishing villages, Buesum and Friedrichskoog.

There’s a Stone Age archaeological park, thalassotherapy spas and every second year in the first week of July, the town of Heide celebrates the Heider Marktfrieden (Festival of Market Freedom), a re-creation of Dithmarschen in the Middle Ages that attracts 100,000 visitors.

The festival, which has its roots in the 13th century when local farmers booted out the nobility and proclaimed the “Free Farmers’ Republic of Dithmarschen”, is held in the town’s historic 4.7-hectare marketplace.

This is one of Germany’s largest market squares where Heide’s Saturday market has been a big event for more than 500 years. During the festival the market fills with kiosks, stalls, jugglers, cabbages, musicians and lots of people drinking lots of Beugelbuddelbier, one of the very pleasant local beers.

But the biggest event on Germany’s cabbage calendar is the beginning of the Dithmarschen cabbage harvest next month (September) when the region hosts the great Kohltage (Cabbage Days) festival, the largest fun event on the North Sea Coast, when thousands turn up to pay homage to old king Kohl.

The revelry begins after the official cutting of the first harvested head of cabbage, a ceremony usually followed by an open day at the lucky farm together with a cabbage feast, music and folk dancing.

Farmers’ markets around Dithmarschen, where many vendors cover their heads with big green cabbage leaves, are dominated by mountains of cabbages and, for the festival’s six days, cabbages assume pride of place on almost every menu.

Artists decorate them for display in shop windows and local restaurants are kept busy churning out regional specialties such as cabbage hotpot and Heiermann – red and white cabbage heads gently boiled with goose fat, grapes, apples and a little mild vinegar.

There are endless supplies of cabbage liquor, cabbage bread and five-course gourmet cabbage dinners as chefs engage in fierce competition to invent ever more audacious cabbage dishes.

To help visitors into the bucolic spirit of the occasion, tour operators lay on excursions to the Dithmarschen cabbage fields, tours of cabbage farmers’ storehouses and visits to the sauerkraut factory in nearby Wesselbrunnen.

The highlight comes as a giant pyramid of cabbages is erected in the town square, so large it requires a crane to complete it and, when it’s done and if it doesn’t collapse, young women dance around its base in traditional costumes before they square up for the big prize.

Unlike other festivals which crown “queens” and “princesses”, Dithmarschen’s republicans have inherited the non-sexist tradition of appointing two “cabbage sovereigns”, worthy local girls whose primary qualification must be a proficient knowledge of cabbages and whose primary task is to steer visitors through the Kohltage fun.

When it all gets too much, cabbaged-out revellers can more or less escape to Heide’s nightlife district, Shoemaker’s Place, named for its earlier role as a craftsman’s street where 158 cobblers once plied their trade alongside a bunch of smelly tanneries.

Now on the ground floors of these cute little houses that line the street and its adjoining alleys there are cocktail bars, music cafes, restaurants and cosy bars where the beer flows freely and the autumn pub grub is, well, essentially cabbage.

©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited).

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