A passion for pickles
I’m a chef, it’s safe to say I’ve tasted most things, and yet pickles remain my favourite flavour in the world. I’ve always been drawn to that mouth-puckering vinegar hit, and if forced to choose between an olive or a piece of chocolate, the former wins every time.
My earliest pickle memory comprises me as a child, slowly eating a pickled onion, layer by tangy layer. I remember the satisfaction of the ritual, the excellent crunch and even the way the sour tang almost made my eyes water.
Pickles are the perfect start to a meal, for the moment vinegar hits your tastebuds, they awaken, whetting your appetite and making you one ravenous being. I find that if you keep popping them in judiciously as your meal progresses, they’ll create a balance to everything you eat.
Preserve and sustain
At its simplest, pickling is the process of preserving food in vinegar or brine. It grew out of necessity; some clever person saw the bounty of produce in spring and summer, didn’t have a fridge, and so pickling and preserving were born. Today, it’s essentially used as a way to keep us fed through the chilly winter months when fresh produce is less readily available and it becomes too cold to leave our caves.
Pickling is one way to live sustainably; you work with produce that’s in season and bountiful, and generally cheaper, using it fresh until you get sick of it and preserving the excess. Plus, by keeping jars of pickles throughout your house, you always have an extra something tasty on hand to use. This not only works with fruits and vegetables, but also with meat and seafood, which leads to a whole other conversation about curing and salting – so many clever and tasty ways to deal with food so nothing is wasted and you always have a lovely store of things to eat.
Everybody does it
Everyone pickles. Sure, there are different ways to preserve and ferment, but you will find versions in every single food culture in the world.
I am particularly fond of Japanese pickles, which are typically served at the start of the meal. I love the way sashimi is always accompanied by a pile of pickled ginger to cleanse the palate between each delicious mouthful. I once visited a market in Kyoto and found myself in pickle heaven – each stall offering an array of various unidentifiable pickled vegetables.
Another way to enjoy pickles is with cured meats, the acidic sharpness cutting through the rich fatty meat flavours, allowing you to eat perhaps a little more than you need. In Italy, this can be in the form of giardinieri, a light pickle made with an array of mixed vegetables, or my favourite – balsamic pickled cipollini, a small onion that’s slightly flat on both ends.
I especially love a mustard pickle, the sweet Italian mostarda made with mustard oil (just a hint of this works so well with roasted pork). There’s also a delicious, more subtle mustardy flavour found in piccalilli, an English version of the Indian achar pickles made with mustard powder and turmeric – perfect with a crumbly English cheddar.
In a pickle
When I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by work, a quick spot of pickling helps me out. I find myself gazing at my jars of pickles, admiring the many colours and thinking of all the various flavours. Having a store of pickles also helps me come up with new combinations for my menu, as I often feel a dish is incomplete without a slight bit of acid or pickle tang. Ask someone who knows me and they’ll tell you there isn’t anything that has come through my kitchen that I have not attempted to pickle. I’ve had a few dodgy results, but the only thing that’s stumped me is corn (although I think I know why and now have a plan).
One day, I’m sure my endless pickling will save lives, especially in the case of Armageddon. If it happens, I’m heading straight to Berta to gorge myself on pickles and fine wine until the zombies come.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson.