My dad has a weakness for pickles. Or, should I more accurately say, food preserved in jars. He has been graciously granted the top shelf of the fridge to keep all these misshapen glass jars, usually full of something bloated and discoloured suspended in liquid, and I have habitually looked past this section of the fridge for the last fifteen to twenty years. That area was a no-go zone and I had, no doubt, been influenced by my mum’s distaste at the collection. Why would I want to eat slimy pickled mackerel, onions, cornichons, gherkins and jars of murky black olives?
Then, the other day, I found myself eating them.
It happened quite naturally. I was standing in front of the fridge, as one does on a daily basis, waiting for something edible and delicious to jump out, when my hand strayed towards an open tub of stuffed olives, packed with cubes of Manchego cheese, and before I knew it I was popping one after the other into my mouth, savouring each briny mouthful and licking the oil off my fingers.
I used to hate olives passionately. The smell alone turned my stomach. A few years ago, while interning at a food magazine in London, a food writer concocted a tomato-olive stew and the stench around the office was, to me, nauseating. Lunch was usually a portion of that day’s food experiment so that was my cue to grab my coat and escape to the safety of Borough Market.
I couldn’t tell you what happened between that moment and me now standing at the open fridge gobbling olives by the fistful. As I can rule out a head injury it is a mystery but something has clicked in my brain and I now go weak at the knees for olives. A simple pleasure of mine is to sit in the sun with a tall glass of something iced and alcoholic, and a platter of green and black olives, which I quickly devour, sucking the flesh off the stones. No luck if you’re my drinking companion, you won’t get a look in.
Likewise, pickles divide their audience. They are sometimes so sour they pucker your mouth and burn your throat, completely masking the other flavours of the spices, herbs and sweetness added to the vinegar. Vinegar itself is divisive. The dull brown liquid served in glass bottles in cafes up and down the length of Britain never struck me as tempting. Nowadays, though, we’re embracing a vinegar revolution. Not only are we learning about all the various vinegars out there, including lesser known ones such as white balsamic and champagne vinegar, there are now homemade fruit vinegars, drinking vinegars, shrubs and natural tonics. All of these veer away from the saccharine sweetness of juice and cordial, instead emphasising the probiotic benefits of starting your day a la Victoria Beckham; with a mouthful of vinegar.
While I’d like to think I’m not just jumping on the populist bandwagon, I have awakened to the joys of pickling. Yeah, the pickled onions and pickled eggs in supermarkets don’t help the cause, but when you line up an army of jars each safeguarding slivers or sticks of colourful vegetables – carrot spears, samphire, fennel with threads of orange zest, and inky purple beetroot – it’s a proud moment, waiting for these dormant pickles to be ready for snacking.
Is there anything better than that sweet, crisp crunch as you bite into a pickle? Or layering it in a sandwich with cheese and cold meat? Those who swiftly dispose of their Big Mac’s pickled gherkin with the speed and force of an ejector seat are missing the point of it being there in the first place; it provides that much needed sour sweetness that freshens the burger, and raw, juicy crispness to contrast the fatty, doughy chew.
So, if you need to be initiated to the pickling campaign, or in my case, the top shelf of the fridge, let’s start small with pickled cucumber. As cucumber is so fresh and so juicy it lends itself perfectly to preserving. Just think, you’re making your cool cucumber that little bit funkier thanks to the tangy vinegar and those sultry spices you throw in the brine. Add whatever flavours you like; I prefer black nigella seeds, peppercorns and cloves, the black speckles looking like swimming tadpoles in the liquid. The cooled liquor is poured over a jar of sliced cucumber, the lid is tightly screwed on, and within a couple of days, or merely a few hours, the steadfast cucumber packs a powerful punch of flavour.
All of a sudden the top shelf of the fridge doesn’t seem so daunting.
Adapted from Great British Chef’s recipe
1 tsp fine salt
200ml white wine vinegar
1 tsp nigella seeds
1 tsp peppercorns
- Roughly peel the cucumber, leaving alternate strips of dark green skin. Slice it to the thickness of about 2mm.
- Throw the pieces in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Leave for 30 minutes until most of the juice has been extracted.
- Meanwhile, make the brine. Put all the remaining ingredients, plus extra spices and herbs if you wish, in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Take it off the heat and leave it to cool completely.
- Sterilise a glass jar by washing it and the lid in hot soapy water. Put it in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Leave it to boil away for 10 minutes then drain the jar and lid on a clean tea towel to air dry.
- Once cool, drain your cucumber slices. Fill the jar with the cucumber and top up with the cold pickling liquor. Cover with the lid and leave in the fridge for at least 3 hours until serving.