Maik Maetzke never aspired to become a pickle expert, but it seems it was meant to be. Maetzke cultivated an appreciation for the preserves growing up in Spreewald, an area of verdant forest in southeastern Germany, which is known for mineral-rich soil producing magnificent cucumbers that are sold throughout the year in pickled form.
Spreewald gherkins are legendary, one of just a few former East German products still kicking around. (You might know them from the film Good Bye Lenin!, when Daniel Brühl's character looks for a jar after the Berlin Wall comes down.) It's a product that's important to the region culturally, but also economically, as one of Brandenburg state's most popular exports and also an EU-protection label.
Maetzke works for Rabe, a family company that has been producing gherkins for over a century in Lübbenau, Spreewald's most popular tourist town, located about an hour's train ride from Berlin. He works in product development, where his most important role is tasting pickles, from checking quality on the factory line to developing new flavors.
Every year, more than 2,000 tonnes of cucumbers are pickled according to Rabe's secret family recipe—and Maetzke definitely eats his share. He talked to MUNCHIES about his bizarre, enviable position and what makes a good gherkin.
MUNCHIES: Do you remember the first time you tasted a pickle? Maik Maetzke: Honestly, pickles have always just been a part of my life. My grandparents said my first word as a baby was "pickle." In fact, once I nearly died when I got a pickle stuck in my throat. Back in former East Germany, we had little tents where my grandparents sold them at local markets. That's why pickles are so familiar to me. It's just like that.
How did you end up in this job, testing pickles? I was a cook in Berlin before, so I already had some experiences working with flavors. I eventually came back home to Spreewald and started here as a trainee for three years, when I learned about testing. I've been with the company eight years in total now.
What do you look for in a good pickle? Well, it depends on the variation. Rabe produces dill gherkins, but also salty sour [lacto-fermented and pickled in brine with no sugar or vinegar] and mustard. There are also new flavors such as sweet chilli and curry.
A lot it depends on if they are sweet enough, salty enough, if the acidity is good, and especially if they are crispy enough. Spreewald gherkins need to be crispy. The whole taste has to be really harmonious and all the spices just right. I can't really tell you how you know—you just know it.
Have you ever tried from a jar that tasted horrible? I've never really had a jar that was not good. Sometimes there may not be enough pepper or we need to add a bit of dill or whatever to make the final taste perfect. Spices always vary from jar to jar as it is. You can always have that variation, it just has to taste good. Of course, the taste has also changed over the years as well. I would say it tends to be a bit sweeter these days.
Let's talk a bit about the testing process. We do taste tests every two months. There are always at least five of us in the laboratory. We just open the jars and test if the gherkins taste good. Since Rabe is based on a secret family recipe, the family that owns the company also comes in from time to time to check on the product.
Is that the same for developing new flavors? New product development takes at least ten to 12 trials. Somebody always wants it more spicy, somebody wants to have more acid in it, everybody usually wants something different. So with the latest additions, the sweet chili and curry flavors, it took a lot of times to find a middle ground we could all agree on.
Since there are only five of us working in development, we also try to get the input of employees in the final product. After we had done our job, we had samples of the gherkins in our cafeteria with a feedback form so they could tell us what they think.
What was the most difficult flavor you've ever had to develop? The sweet chili gherkins involved the most discussion. It was an innovative product which I personally haven't ever seen in a retail store. We struggled primarily with how sweet they should be. For some they were too sweet; for others they could have been way sweeter; and the spiciness, of course, had to be perfect. In the end, it was a democratic decision.
How do you clear such a strong taste from your palate? Usually, we just drink water in between. It's only difficult with the sweet chili gherkins because they are so hot, so you don't taste so much afterwards. That's why we usually taste them at the end.
Do you ever get tired of tasting gherkins? Since it's every two months, we don't do it all that often. And it's just a taste I'm so used to by now. I still often use gherkins whenever I grill. They are just the perfect side dish.
Can anybody be a pickle tester such as yourself? I think that if somebody is a really good cook, they would be able to do it. You need to have a good sense of taste and ingredients above all.
Thank you for speaking with me.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2017.