Food writer and historian Angela Clutton explores the art of pickling
Words: Angela Clutton
Should you find yourself walking past an east London fish and chip shop and hear someone exclaim “what a wally”, don’t necessarily assume they are being disparaging about the clientele. More likely they’re just particularly pleased with their pickled gherkins, ‘wally’ being the old cockney term for just that.
A wally gives the kind of knock-out flavour punch common to all pickles, but stands out for the fact gherkins are grown specifically just to be pickled. Gherkins aside, most pickling is yet another very old way of preserving produce so you can enjoy it beyond its season, and limit waste.
Even if those principles don’t apply to pickling these particularly small, coarse gherkin cucumbers, they certainly do to other, ordinary cucumbers. My fridge is rarely without a jar or two of those; pickled with sweet muscatel vinegar, dill, garlic and pickling spices. There’s nothing better for a burger.
Quality and condition
The acidity of vinegar preserves the fruit or vegetables by preventing the development of harmful bacteria. The very basic process of immersing something in vinegar for a while couldn’t be simpler—so simple, it is worth taking the time to think about the quality and condition of what you are preserving. When I called my cucumbers ‘ordinary’ just now, that really translates in a pickling context as ‘exceptional’. They had such a beautiful smell and taste when fresh.
Only by using the best ingredients—including really good vinegar and the freshest of spices—can anyone hope to achieve the best pickles.
Vinegar may not be able to transform inferior produce, but it can intensify flavours and colours. It also blends flavours together, making it really important to put together ingredients that will achieve an interesting balance when left to mature and develop.
Melee of ingredients
Piccalilli is a famous pickle that, on the face of it, is such a melee of ingredients it’s hard to see how it can work. I’ll admit I remember as a child wrinkling my nose at this pickle my mother so loved. Now I’ve grown into a self-declared vinegar obsessive, I feel sad and a little silly about the fuss I made. As I smear piccalilli on a slice of game pie, I can fully appreciate that the right blend of seasonal vegetables, when pickled with good white wine vinegar and interesting spices, achieves a flavour both smooth and strong.
Pickling spices typically include coriander seeds, mustard seeds, cumin, fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, chilli flakes or black pepper, in differing proportions, and rarely all at once. You can build up from there depending on what is being pickled. I’ve had very tasty results pickling peaches with spices and lime zest. Cubes of tenderly cooked pumpkin pickle well with chanterelles and thyme added into the mix.
For the kinds of pickles where the fruit or vegetable is lifted out to be used as an ingredient or condiment (as opposed to the piccalilli style of pickle where the sauce is thicker and served too), I urge you to value and use what is left behind in the jar. It will have developed so much flavour from all the ingredients blending together and becomes a prize for use in cooking or for dressings. My fridge probably has as many jars of ‘empty’ pickling liquid as it does pickles. If I’m honest, the pickling liquids are used even more than the actual pickles—and that is saying something.