Pickling evolved more out of necessity than anything else, as a method of preserving food when it was available for the future. Ancient peoples palates were no doubt blessed and cursed with the same tastes for different flavours as us. Hence pickling must have become a favourable way to process foods because they were enjoyed as well as preserved.
The process of pickling wouldn’t be possible without that most magic of ingredients: Vinegar. Traces of this wonderful liquid have been found in ancient Egyptian urns as early as 3000BC. Vinegar comes from the French expression “vin aigre” meaning “sour wine” and that is exactly what it is; white wine, red wine, cider, sherry and rice wine vinegar are all simply the results of the oxidisation of ethanol found in these alcoholic beverages.
Vinegar has had its fair share of historical reference; Jesus was offered “sour wine” on the cross and the prophet Mohammed declared it one of the four “blessed seasonings”. Even Lord Nelson, after his untimely death, was placed in a barrel of sherry to preserve his body on the journey back to Blighty (ok, not vinegar but close).
Alongside this age-old process, a select bunch of herbs and spices have become part of its miraculous evolution:
- Mustard seeds
- Fennel seeds
- Black pepper
- Coriander seeds
There are two other classic additions, salt and sugar, also of vital importance in getting a good pickling. The sugar tends to balance the sourness of the vinegar, especially when making chutney.
The start of winter is the most common time to begin pickling and preserving, not least because most of the fruits and vegetables which receive these treatments have just been plucked from the earth or snatched from the tree (think onions, apples, carrots, cauliflower etc.) and are in great abundance.
I have always had a real passion for anything that involves vinegar, especially salt & vinegar crisps, pickled onions and pickles. I have even been known to drink vinegar directly from the bottle, much more so in my schooldays, now I wouldn’t attempt such a feat unless I had some Rennie Rapeze close to hand! So it was inevitable that the process of pickling would appeal to me and be a source of great satisfaction in the kitchen.
Three lessons I have learnt in my pickling career stand out and I only feel it right to inform you about them before you embark on your own (if you haven’t already).
Make sure you sterilise the jars properly! The prescribed method is to place your jars in a boiling water bath for ten minutes and stick them in a warm oven to dry out. This will prevent your hard graft being spoilt.
Try to leave your pickled items or chutney for 6-8 weeks if you can bear it. This will allow them time to develop more flavour and mature well.
When making chutney, turn on the extractor fan. I recently made a good size batch of red onion chutney without doing this. I then went to watch the fireworks on Clapham Common. Whilst on the bus a group of girls next to me remarked with disgust; “Can you smell pickled onion?” I also received the same treatment in the pub after the fireworks…
I am afraid that the piece de resistance; the pickled onions, have been omitted from the recipes. This is because I was handed the recipe from my girlfriend’s Mother. It is her grandmother’s secret recipe and Clare warned me, that it would be a dumpable offence if I were to post it. I can assure you they are quite something to keep secret!
This is a great way to store your chillies for future culinary use, chillies do last a while in the fridge, but due to their fiery heat, they are not always used up before it is too late.
- Selection of chillies (500g)
- 300ml cider vinegar
- 200ml of water
- 1tsp light brown soft sugar
- 1tsp salt
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1tsp coriander seeds
- 1tsp turmeric
- 5 dried Kaffir lime leaves
Wash all the chillies and pierce each chilli a few times with a knife. This allows the pickling in and the air out, otherwise they float in the jar when the liquid is poured in.
Put all the other ingredients in a pan and heat until the sugar and salt dissolve. Do not boil.
Pack the chillies into a jar and pour over the pickling liquid. Allow it to cool and then push down all the chillies to release the air inside them. Store in a dark place for a couple of weeks before use.
Pickled cayenne beans.
This was an idea put forward by my brother who lives in New York. He said they are incredible and a jar in his house lasts only a few days! If you want to see them for yourself and place an order visit: http://rickspicksnyc.com/jar.php?jar=4
Or have a go yourself!
- 1 pack green beans
- Pickling vinegar (300ml)
- 1tsp cayenne pepper
- 1tsp salt
- 1 fresh red chilli (finely chopped)
- A few sprigs of dill
- 4 cloves of garlic
Incredibly simple! Wash and dry the beans and chop off all the stalk ends.
Place all the other ingredients in the bottom of a sterilised jar, pack in beans, chopped-end down and fill the jar with pickling vinegar.
I have yet to taste these, but from what I have heard, I can hardly wait!
Red onion & chilli chutney
(Makes 2 medium jars)
This is absolutely my favourite chutney! Far too often I find myself with a dollop of this, a nice chunk of Stilton and a stack of water biscuits!
- 5-6 medium red onions
- 100gs of sultanas
- 1 large red chilli (finely chopped)
- 4 garlic cloves (finely chopped)
- 1tsp salt
- 1tsp smoked paprika
- 300ml red wine vinegar
- 175g light brown soft sugar
For the spice bag:
- 1 thumb size piece of ginger (roughly chopped)
- 1tsp black peppercorns
- 1tsp coriander seeds
- ¼ stick of cinnamon stick (crushed)
- 6 cloves
Wash and chop the onions into half moon slices (5mm thick) and place in a saucepan.
Tie up the spice mix in a piece of muslin and place in the pan with the onions.
Add all the other ingredients and put the saucepan on a medium heat. Once the vinegar has begun to boil and the sugar has dissolved, turn down the heat. Turn on the extractor fan!
Simmer for 1 ½ - 2 hours, stirring occasionally. The chutney is ready when it is rich, thick and reduced; when you draw a wooden spoon through the mixture, it should part to reveal the base of the pan.
Pot up the chutney into warm, sterilised jars and allow it to cool before sealing. Leave well alone for at least a month!
All these recipes have a good dose of chilli, especially the pickled chillies! This is because I have a deep affiliation for heat, but they can, in most cases, be left out if you are not a fan. Pickling is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon and keep away the blues; it is also something that you will enjoy consuming for the rest of the cold, wet British Winter