A Tale Of Two Pickles


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.

Stop and drink


Cooking is simple, in the ways that it is simple, because it is predictable; ingredients rarely lie, prevaricate, dissemble, or even change their minds. Two eggs, mixed correctly with the equivalent weight each of fat, sugar, and flour, make a cake, and if they don’t turn out to behave as you expect, the fault lies with you and with a failure of your technique. You can’t blame the butter because you didn’t cream it for long enough; it did what it was bound, as it were, to do, and what it in fact told you it was going to do, if you had been paying attention. If the butter turned out, on closer inspection, to be margarine, then you might be angry at yourself, for somehow not having realised that it was margarine, or you might be angry at your partner or housemate, for deliberately bringing margarine into your home; you might be angry that margarine, that greasy parody of authenticity, even exists. You can’t say that it only just became margarine, though, or that it hid its true nature until you had bought it and had it out of the packet; it was always margarine, and it says so on the label, which screams I can’t believe it, even though it is obvious to anyone who knows anything about butter, or margarine, that it is not the one and is the other.

If, on the other hand, cooking is difficult, then it is difficult to the extent that it is complicated, whether obviously, as in a baking recipe which might use forty ingredients in as many steps over four days, or more esoterically, as in cooking something like a steak, say, a process which involves so many variables, the cut, thickness and temperature of the meat, the exact heat and conductivity of your pan or grill, the exact age and physical condition of the original animal, that they are usually glossed over altogether, perhaps with the instruction simply to cook it to your liking, which isn’t, when it comes down to it, very helpful.You can, as a cook, either take this rather disingenuous instruction as it is, or you can attempt to understand every invisible step, every variable involved, in which case you will very probably get worse at cooking before you get better; you will, on the other hand, have the knowledge to see the occasional cooking disaster not as a blind act of fate or coincidence, but the direct result of actions taken or not taken; you can do better next time.

Cooking is predictable, you might say, because it is banal; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. Cooking is complicated because it has deep roots; it has been done the same way for thousands upon thousands of years. On the one hand it seems trivial, when every breaking news alert is seasoned with the sense that America, and perhaps the rest of the world with it, is swiftly approaching some final catastrophe, to attempt to sit down and write about dinner, or worse, brunch; on the other, what else is there to write about? Whatever else happens, we all have to eat, and February is grim enough anyway without this extra burden. I seem, unconsciously, to have been focusing recently on cooking skills which might be useful in a post-apocalyptic wasteland Рcanning, preserving, foraging, cooking over open fire, butchery, and so on; these ferments I have stored against my ruin. Less bleakly, it seems reasonable, at such times, to bake sweet things and bread, to roast good meats and vegetables, to lay a table and to share it, and then to drink.