There’s an excellent David Chang article – I forget where he wrote it – in which he defends rot against the cult of freshness in food. He’s obviously not talking about mouldy, greying meat, but rather the process of controlled decomposition which is central to so much in cooking. ‘Ageing’ meat, ‘maturing’ cheese, are both euphemisms, basically, for ‘allowing to rot’. Freshly killed meat is inedible to us, our teeth blunted by evolution. Even fish, where freshness is especially prized, need to pass through rigor in order to be toothsome. Quite apart from this necessity, he points out, controlled rot also produces much that is simply delicious. Fermentation and pickling are experiments with yeasts and moulds and time, arresting and manipulating the process of decay in order to produce some of the most important parts of a cuisine. Where would a ploughman’s be without pickles and beer?
As you can probably tell, I thoroughly agree with Chang here. I love aged cheese and cured fish and beer and pickles – especially pickles. I am half of a pop-up catering company called Pickle & Smoke, and spend a lot of my time pickling things. As well as the pleasure of the end results, I really enjoy the whole process of making them. There is something magical, ancient, about preserving, taking the best of the summer and laying it down to last through the long winter, little jewels glinting in rows of jars. For a lot of people, though, I think pickling can be quite daunting. It takes ages, there are worries about sterilisation and so on… It is true that it is a very different process from cooking, say, a stew or a sauce, where you taste, adjust, reduce, let down. There is a certain amount of faith involved, in both the recipe and yourself, when you seal up a jar and leave it for the allotted time. Did you forget something? Was the recipe any good?
My dad always pickles his shallots in the summer, which was a lengthy process of cleaning and peeling, brining, then laying down, hidden in malt vinegar and spices, for a period that always seemed unfairly long. Once or twice I tried them before they were ready, still tucked away on the shelf above the stairs, and was rewarded with the harsh bite of raw onion for my impatience. They do take time. Unless you are actually making pickles that can last the year unrefridgerated, though, they don’t take as much time as you might think. The main pickles we make are based on Turkish pickles, much lighter and ‘fresher’ than traditional British ones, and are very simple to make. Here’s a recipe –
BASIC PICKLE BRINE
100g sea salt
150ml white wine vinegar
500ml lemon juice
Just stir the salt into the vinegar until it dissolves, and add the other liquids. All you have to do it pour this over your jarred vegetables, seal and leave in a warm place for one or two weeks. They’ll keep in the fridge for a good while after that. The brine itself will keep for another day if you have some leftover.
The classic mezze pickle is baby turnips, with a bit of chopped beetroot in the jar to turn them a vivid pink. I’ve also used this brine for sour plums, sliced rhubarb, and ripe blackberries, adding various aromats to each jar. It’s a very flexible recipe – you might also want to consider adding a little sugar for sourer fruit and veg, though I like the odd savoury edge you get from salt alone. As I said, though, you don’t have the same process of instant trial and error you get from normal cooking, so be prepared for a few failures. They make the successes much more satisfying.
Those take a little time, then, but are very simple to prepare. This is a little more involved, but only needs to pickle overnight. It’s based on a classic bread and butter pickle recipe from Diana Henry.
SWEET SPICED COURGETTES
500g courgette, sliced fairly thin
350g white onion, sliced in very thin half-moons
2tbsp sea salt
500ml white wine vinegar
250g caster sugar
a pinch of saffron
1tbsp mustard seeds
1tbsp nigella seeds
1 red chilli, halved
In a bowl, massage the salt into the courgette and onion, cover and leave overnight, preferably somewhere you don’t have to smell it, unless you love weeping raw onion.
Next day, rinse and drain. Put everything else in a pan, and bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil and reduce for 5 or ten minutes. Meanwhile, pack the courgette and onion into jars.
When the brine’s ready, pour it in, seal the jars, then leave til tomorrow. These are good in any situation, particularly those involving cheese. I imagine they’d be pretty good in a lamb burger too.