A Tale Of Two Pickles

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It strikes me as odd that we use the terms pickle and ferment so interchangeably. Ask for a pickle in America and you will most likely be given a dill pickle, that is to say a lacto-fermented cucumber; ask for the same in England and you will probably receive a heavily vinegared baby onion or, if your hypothetical pickle-giver didn’t catch that indefinite article, some sort of Branston-alike, which is to say an equally vinegared vegetable chutney.

Fermenting and pickling, it’s true, do serve the same purpose both practically and culinarily; they preserve the gluts of summer against the long bare winter, and add (ironically) freshness and life to otherwise bland or rich meals. It’s amazing how much more gruel you can choke down if it’s interspersed with bites of sauerkraut, or, at the other end of the scale, how much more palatable a couple of cornichons renders an inch of good foie gras terrine. Despite these seeming affinities, pickling (by which I mean vinegar pickling) and fermenting achieve their aims through exactly opposite approaches; the fermenter creates, but the pickler destroys.

In its classic British format, such as the aforementioned sweet pickled onion or the murky pub egg, pickling constitutes a four-pronged assault against the forces of decay. A solution is made of a strong vinegar, sugar and salt, all in themselves harmful to various forms of microbial life; just in case you thought the sugar might encourage and feed any lurking yeasts or bacteria on your onions, the whole lot is heated and poured boiling over the vegetables in a final sterilisation, and the jar sealed against the living air. No life thrives in such an environment, and the only instability is the slow action of enzymes on vegetable flesh.

This is an excellent way of preserving things and it has unsurprisingly become the standard method (with additional pasteurisation) for industrial pickling; as well as satisfying the hatred of bacteria which is the lynchpin of food safety practices, it produces a consistent and stable product which is capable, on occasion, of deliciousness. Although bought pickled onions are never quite crunchy enough for me (probably that pasteurisation) their vinegar is always excellent, with the ferocious quantities of salt, acid and sugar colliding in the middle into something like balance, while good jarred cornichons are essentially perfect. Certainly they are good enough to render making them at home pointless, even if you had a ready supply of cucumbers no bigger than the top two joints of your little finger. If I did, I think I would ferment them.

Invisible Pickles

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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s been quite hot lately. Hot enough that it is actively unpleasant to spend much or any time cooking, which is unfortunate if you happen to do so for a living. These are days for methodically tidying the walk-in fridge, for bathing the salad more carefully than ever, or in extreme circumstances for staging a rodent infestation so your kitchen gets closed down and you can go to the park, or, once you’ve realised that it’s too hot there too, home. The problem is that you still have to make dinner. Cooking in the sense of heating things up was obviously out of the question, but I almost gave up on the idea of preparing food entirely and went to that Italian place down the road, with the windows wide open to the street and a good selection of wines by the glass; I would have done, if I hadn’t already been shopping, and bought

YELLOW CHERRIES, CUCUMBER, GOAT’S CHEESE + DILL

which I can’t, given the heat, really be bothered to expand into what is conventionally called a recipe. The goat’s cheese was a crumbly one very similar to feta and the cucumbers were the English crooked type which also, it should be said, pickle extremely well; having chopped them fairly haphazardly and added them to the stoned cherries, I seasoned them with enough coarse salt and good apple vinegar to almost constitute a pickle, along with a long slug of surprisingly expensive olive oil and some picked dill, gently turning the lot and then crumbling over the aforementioned crumbly cheese.

I suppose that is a recipe, if you squint, but I prefer to see it as merely one possible consequence of a too-hot day; I could instead have made a watermelon salad, eaten a Mr Whippy, or fallen in and out of a tumultuous love.