Spreewald gherkins aren’t just any old gherkins. They hold a certain status in Germany, to the extent that they are designated by the EU as a Protected Geographical Indication, designed to protect local specialties.
And yet the greatest threat to their survival isn’t coming from international competitors, but from German politicians.
Producers say that the national minimum wage introduced by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as part of the coalition agreement is forcing prices up.
“More than 200 years of tradition will come to an end if consumers don’t carry on buying our gherkins,” conserve producer Konrad Linkenhell told the Berliner Morgenpost.
“Because of higher wages the raw ingredients have become massively more expensive – by more than a half. It's a disaster,” he said.
The company has had to raise its prices and is worried that consumers will stop purchasing the famous product.
But the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) doesn’t see the minimum wage as a threat to the beloved delicacy, and thinks consumers will be prepared to pay that little extra.
“Anyone who doesn’t pay its work force enough to live well on doesn’t have a right to exist,” said the DGB chair in Cottbus, Lothar Judith.
Spreewald gherkins do seem to still have a strong presence on the supermarket shelves, even if they're a little more expensive than other varieties.
A jar of them was on sale for just €2 at Kaiser's, a major German supermarket, on Thursday afternoon.
During the harvest season around 4,000 employees work in the fields, exclusively people from Poland and Romania.
Under the new minimum wage law they receive €7.20 an hour under an agreement for phased introduction of the new pay scales for the agricultural sector.
That will jump to €7.90 at the start of next year and €8.60 in 2017.
This is a huge change from the €5.00 an hour that gherkin pickers were paid before the introduction of the law.
Linkenheil used the minimum wage in the Netherlands as a previous example: “Almost immediately the gherkin industry disappeared, which is why new opportunities arose in Germany.”
“Gherkin production will disappear and move to Eastern Europe, Turkey, India or Vietnam,” he said.
Already this year the amount of gherkins produced is down 20 percent or around 8,000 tonnes.
Spreewald gherkins have been used as a cultural reference in the well-known film Goodbye Lenin (2003), where they become a key part of the artificial version of East Germany that Alex has to rebuild inside his mother's bedroom.
As a result they have become part of the phenomenon known as “Ostalgie” (nostalgia for the East), and can be bought in supermarkets around Germany.