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.

Pickle Prayer

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Put your faith in salt and time

and trust that pickles will result;

Put your faith in time and salt.

 

Put your faith in time and salt –

Age gives heft to more than wine –

Put your faith in salt and time.

 

In time and salt put all your trust

– the salt and sour will keep it safe –

time and salt deserve your faith.

 

In time and salt put all your faith

discard the failures when you must

but keep your faith, and time, and trust.

 

Noble Rot

It’s a little strange that Britain, for all its love of tracklements and preserves, has no particular tradition of lactofermentation, the preferred method of pickling vegetable matter from Korea to High Germany, and indeed further afield. In the United States, it is understood that the word “pickle”, unmodified, means a sour dill pickle; that is to say, a small cucumber, lactofermented in the Continental tradition mostly associated here with polski skleps and salt-beef bagels, though very similar to the pickles of Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt, where they fill the same role as a foil to rich, smoky meats and sour dairy. Here, I suppose, “pickle” (“cheese & pickle”) means something anonymous, mixed and brown in the Branston mode, malty with vinegar and brown sugar – although if you were offered “pickles” you might reasonably expect onions, perhaps some beetroot or sweet, sliced cucumber; even, if you’re lucky, an inky Opies walnut. If we pickle cabbage, it will, most likely, be red and, once again, vinegared; the bacterial tang of sauerkraut is alien to the national palate. (Was, anyway; the Reuben has joined pulled pork on the supermarket shelves, and kimchi, we are told, is ubiquitous. As so often happens, these things have gone straight from out-there trend to mass-produced commodity.)

Lactofermentation is a chemistry experiment, or if you like, an artistic exploration into decay. Fruit or vegetables (generally) are placed into salted and perhaps sweetened water – or in the case of sauerkraut, dry-salted, the cabbage itself providing the required liquid – and left for some time, the exact recipe varying with ingredient, temperature, season. The amount of salt is important – you need enough to kill off any rogue yeasts, and the majority of bacteria, but not so much as to see off the lactobacilli, which will, given time, eat their way through natural and added sugars, creating lactic acid – after the manner of acids, a preservative – in return. This is one of those extremely useful processes, symbiotic between humanity and microscopic life, which form the foundations of our culinary history – and one of the more baffling ones. You can see how some sour grape juice was sampled, liked, and polished off; how old dough was found to swell fuller in the oven’s heat. To leave cucumbers entirely immersed in salt water for a period of time takes a certain amount of idle curiosity. However. To get back to those pickles, perhaps it’s the decay that puts us off; we don’t like to watch the cloudy, mysterious bubbling as the bacteria do their work. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve never had much truck, historically speaking, with sourdough bread either, or, our noble cheese aside, soured milk products.

It’s a shame, anyway, as fermentation is an excellent method of pickling, preserving (haha!) as it does a lot of characteristics normally masked by heavy, sweet vinegars. I fermented some tomatoes recently, to an (I think) Ukrainian recipe via Olia Hercules, and they were delicious. Sour almost to the point of fizziness, they nonetheless taste of tomato – and of different varieties of tomato – in a way which chutneys and ketchups, however tasty, do not. It’s odd, when British cooking has such a reputation for plainness (simply boiled or roast meat, potatoes, vegetables) that in pickling we frequently pile on so much ornamentation, to the point where it overpowers the content – we don’t eat piccalilli for the beans and cauliflower, or Branston pickle for the whatever-they-put-in-Branston-pickle – although the same could be said of our charcuterie tradition. All across Europe, people dry-cure whole or boned pork legs in masses of salt, trusting in the quality of the animal, fed on acorns or herbs or common swill, to shine through; we, on the other hand, immerse the same in treacle, beer, sugar, cloves, marmalade, vinegar, saltpetre, peppercorns, herbs and hay, roast it, and still serve it with nose-tickling mustard, pickles, pickle, and piccalilli. We have a thousand sausages, but no salami – salt beef but no cecina. You could blame the climate, but I’m not convinced. I stuck a salted sheep’s leg up a chimney all through summer and it came out fine. I think it’s that same fear of rot, of seeing the white bloom of mould creep across the skin; deep in a Puritan part of our souls we are scared of decay – although that doesn’t account for Stilton or, for that matter, Stichelton.