Perfect Pickle

Perfect Pickle

by David Collison, David Mabey


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This original edition of this book started life in 1988 as an accompaniment to the six-part "BBC2 TV" series "The Perfect Pickle Programme", which has subsequently been seen worldwide in countries as far apart as Slovenia and Japan. It went on to appear in three editions. What has happened since then has been little short of a revolution.

Delicatessen and farm shop shelves are crammed with pickles, as well as salsas, vinegars, pastes and chutneys; these spiced-up specialties are all the rage and have become the in-vogue accompaniments of the moment. It's easy to understand their attraction: they are assertive and potent, but can also be subtle; sometimes they assault the palate, sometimes they tease with their piquancy. Cooks at home know that they can add a buzz to quite ordinary food. Fresh produce has always been at the heart of good pickling, and home-grown is best of all.

Increasing numbers of allotment holders are subscribing to the notion of 'plant it, pick it and pickle it', precisely because it makes economic as well as culinary sense. Farmers' markets, which are spreading throughout the country at an astonishing rate (there are now over 500), are also a fruitful and profitable prospect for small-scale pickle and chutney makers, who are able to sell their wares without having to negotiate needless 'food miles'.

And we mustn't forget those staunch and valiant members of the Women's Institutes, who continue to fly the flag for all things honest and homemade. Hopeful signs, indeed. But it isn't simply fashion: the number of city restaurants and country pubs now offering home-pickled red cabbage, pickled walnuts and piccalilli (which can be served with anything from deep-fried goats' cheese or ham hock terrine to seared scallops) is astonishing. Cooks and chefs of an older generation have also discovered a new passion for domestic industry (what the nineteenth-century radical William Cobbett dubbed 'cottage economy'): in the early days it was enough to bake your own bread, now full-scale home production is what counts.

Legions of enthusiasts are bringing it all back home and they also understand how to succeed in business. The world really is our larder and pickles are back where they belong - on the front row. Here is a completely revised and updated edition of this popular and much in demand handbook with recipes not just for fruit and vegetable pickles but for pickled meats and fish.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781904943723
Publisher: Grub Street
Publication date: 04/14/2008
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David Mabey is the author of several cookbooks.

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The History of Pickling

People have been making pickles for more than 2000 years. It is one of the oldest methods of preserving food, although it doesn't have quite the same antiquity as drying, salting and smoking. The earliest hunter-gatherers knew how to preserve their catch of meat and fish by drying it in the open air, and Neolithic man worked out his own ways of curing long before the idea of pickling was discovered.

The Egyptians probably did some pickling; the Greeks certainly did, but it was the Romans who turned it into a fine art. Columella didn't mince words when he wrote 'vinegar and hard brine are essential for making preserves'. Vinegar meant 'sour wine', and that's exactly what it was made from in Roman times. Yeast, dried figs, salt and honey were added to produce something not only vital for pickling, but also used as a drink diluted with water.

The sheer range of Roman pickles was astonishing. Thanks to their vast empire and conquered territories they had access to almost every fruit, vegetable, spice and herb then known and cultivated: from North Africa and the Middle East came plums, lemons, peaches and apricots; from Europe came cured meats and vegetables; their own gardens produced a whole range of herbs, roots and flowers. There were recipes for pickled onions, plums, lettuce leaves, asparagus, fennel and cabbage stalks. Turnips were preserved in a pickle made from honey, myrtle berries and vinegar: the Roman way was to macerate the ingredients in a mixture of oil, brine and vinegar, which was added carefully drop by drop; then the pickles were stored for months in large cylindrical vases.

The Roman Empire didn't last, and after the fall, the centres of civilised cookery in Europe were the monasteries. The monks knew all about provisions. They made cheese, brewed beer, kept bees and were avid picklers, making extensive use of the produce from their herb and vegetable gardens and orchards. By the eleventh century most of these monastic skills had re-appeared in the kitchens of grand households. Pickling was probably quite limited during this period, because there were few vegetables available — onions, leeks, cabbages and some root crops, but very little else. Not a great prospect for anyone interested in pickling. Some produce was dried, but usually it was a question of eating what was fresh and in season. One of the few early references to a specific pickle is a recipe for 'pickled greens' in a household list of 1290. These were probably cabbages and they were most likely pickled in verjuice — the juice extracted from sour crab apples. (The word was used in Roman times to describe a kind of grape juice, but from the Middle Ages until the sixteenth century it was specifically made from crab apples.) It was rather like a very mild, sharp cider, which gives us a clue to the flavour and character of many of those early pickles.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the list of fruits, vegetables and herbs available to cooks increased. And so did the number of pickles. This was pickling's first Golden Age, and it had its champions — all men: Gervaise Markham, Robert May, John Evelyn, whose Acetaria of 1699 is the great work of its time on herbs and salad vegetables. Here were recipes for pickling broom buds, alexander buds, rock samphire, ash keys, elder shoots, the leaves from young radishes, turnips and lettuce, as well as mushrooms, walnuts and cucumbers.

The Elizabethans loved colour, style and vividness in all things. In their great houses, food was presented with consummate care. Most dazzling of all was the grand salad or salmagundi — an extravagant array of all kinds of herbs, wild plants and vegetables, some raw, others boiled, often with cold meats, cured fish, hard-boiled eggs and a great assortment of pickled things as embellishments. It was also the fashion to decorate these dishes with fresh and pickled flowers to add a special colour and scent. The flamboyance, wit and whimsy of these great presentations matched perfectly the mood of the times.

The second Golden Age of pickling belonged exclusively to the ladies. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the first in a line of classic English recipe books was being published. These books covered every aspect of cooking and domestic skills, which naturally included pickling. Each had a substantial section devoted to the subject, with some marvellous recipes. Hannah Glasse, Eliza Smith, Elizabeth Raffald, Mrs Rundell and many others were the culinary heroines of their age, a century before Mrs Beeton laid her famous tome before the public.

There were echoes of the Elizabethan Age in many of these eighteenthcentury pickles: recipes for radish pods, two ways of pickling artichokes (one using the young leaves, the other making use of the bottoms), barberries and fennel, alongside onions, beetroot and red cabbage. By this time, the range of fruits available to cooks had increased and many of these were pickled too: redcurrants and grapes, melons and peaches, often done in a liquor of wine or wine vinegar.

What really changed the face of pickling was the influence of the East India Company's trade with the Orient. Travellers brought back all kinds of exotica, from soy sauce to mangoes. This started a vogue for imitations: marrows were pickled to resemble mangoes; cauliflower stalks were turned into mock ginger and pickled elder shoots were thought to resemble bamboo shoots. Piccalilli also appeared around the beginning of the eighteenth century. The first recipes say 'To pickle lila, an Indian pickle.' Even then it was a vinegar-based sauce flavoured with garlic, mustard seeds, ginger and turmeric with pieces of cabbage, cauliflower and plums. Not very different to the bright yellow concoction that has become one of today's best-sellers.

From the east also came chutneys and ketchups. The word chutney is from the Hindustani chatni, meaning a strong sweet relish. Ketchup derived from the Chinese koe-chiap, a pickled fish sauce that was introduced into South-East Asia and India by travellers and Chinese immigrants. So-called 'store sauces' became all the rage. There were powerful condiments made from anchovies, wine, horseradish and spices that were intended 'for the captains of ships'; there was Harvey's Sauce, Pontac Sauce made from elderberries and, in due course, the most famous of them all, Worcestershire Sauce. What they had in common was pungency and a potent spiciness. The same was true of pickles, which had developed a much stronger flavour than their Elizabethan counterparts.

By the middle of the nineteenth century many of the great pickles had disappeared, banished by lack of interest and changes in fashion. In 1845, when Eliza Acton published Modern Cookery for Private Families, the first commercial pickle factories had begun to appear in London. But Eliza was prepared to speak her mind: she was a champion of good home-cooking and proper pickles. Her book is full of precise, accurate observations and instructions, and she was not afraid to attack bad practice: she took the pickle makers to task for adulterating their vinegar (which was often composed of a dilute solution of sulphuric acid, coloured with burnt sugar) and for deliberately making pickles in copper vessels so that they looked vivid green, but were potentially deadly; and she was prepared to say that most commercial pickles at that time were made from crude, hard, unripe fruit and were basically unwholesome. That was heady stuff for its day. No wonder Eliza Acton is now rated as the forerunner of modern cookery writers.

Subsequently, the food industry began to tighten up its standards, encouraged by laws which resulted from a special government enquiry into food adulteration in 1899. Successive bouts of legislation have attempted to safeguard the consumer, and 'quality control' is now the pickle makers' watchword. But what would Eliza Acton think of the onions from today's pickle factories, with their spirit vinegar, artificial sweeteners, caramel and colourings? What would be her verdict on some of today's chutneys, with their sugar beet and swede, their modified starch and gum arabic and their bland, sickly sweet flavour? And what would she make of the fact that many commercial producers still feel impelled to add artificial preservatives to their products, even though they are – by definition – preserved foods? Pickles and chutneys are a multi-million pound business, and our appetite for these curious comestibles shows no sign of waning.

That said, a new spirit and interest in home-pickling is gaining ground. Right across the country there are scores of revivalist cottage industries making pickles on more than a domestic scale, but with real passion and enthusiasm. Their products aren't intended to replace the big names, but at least we now have some honest and off-the-wall alternatives; old pickles are being re-discovered, new recipes are being invented. And in many enterprising restaurant kitchens, cooks and chefs are putting pickles back where they belong, right at the heart of British cooking.


First Principles

Pickling is a way of preserving and transforming food. Often it relies on the effects of salt and vinegar, but not always. In this book we try to enlarge the subject, and to show there's much more to pickling than just onions in malt vinegar. It is a fact of life that food deteriorates and goes bad. Enzymes in the food itself cause the browning of cut surfaces and the change from pectin to pectic acid in over-ripe fruit. Yeasts, moulds and bacteria also attack food. Pickling is intended to keep the bacteria at bay. Originally it was a way of simply preserving seasonal crops through the year, but nowadays it can be used to create a whole larder full of new flavours and textures. New foods, in fact.


One of the advantages of pickling is that it requires no special or expensive equipment. Most items are standard issue in any kitchen: sharp stainless steel knives which will not discolour fruit and vegetables; a large wooden chopping board; a colander; scales; a plastic or stainless steel funnel; a sieve; mixing bowls; stainless steel saucepans. It is important that you avoid copper, brass or iron pans which will react with the vinegar, discolour the pickles and produce unpleasant and potentially dangerous results. In addition, aluminium should never be used.

Also you will need teaspoons and tablespoons for measuring and a set of wooden spoons for stirring and mixing. Don't use metal spoons when dealing with vinegar or brine.

An earthenware crock is very handy when pickling meat and fish, for salting cabbage and other vegetables and for making large quantities of any pickle.

The essential piece of equipment for making chutneys (as well as jams and marmalades) is a large stainless steel preserving pan, preferably with handles for safe and easy lifting.

Jars and containers are easy to come by. Unless you are making pickles for competition, there's no point in spending a lot of money on special jars. Collect empty jam jars, coffee jars, even re-cycled pickle jars, and ask your friends to let you have any they don't want. Pubs and restaurants are often a good source of large, wide-mouthed jars that are useful for pickled eggs and other big items. Try to use clear glass jars if possible, as well-made pickles are a treat for the eye.

Covering the jars is important. In the past there were all kinds of tricks, from writing paper soaked in brandy to melted paraffin wax or mutton fat. Avoid any cap or lid with a bare metal lining: vinegar will cause this to corrode and taint the pickle. The best are twist-on tops with a plastic, vinegar-proof lining. These are available in most good kitchen shops and in branches of Lakeland Limited, who also supply other pickling and preserving accessories.

Chutneys can be covered with waxed paper discs and clear cellophane, although they must be stored in a very dry place. Otherwise the twist-on tops used for pickles are just as effective, and are more convenient once the jar has been opened.


The answer is virtually any kind of fruit, vegetable, and herb, as well as all sorts of meat, fish, poultry and game. During our travels we have seen everything from little Japanese aubergines to Spanish caper berries that look like bald gooseberries on a stalk. We have uncovered recipes for pickling eels and pigeons and guinea fowl eggs; we have even tasted pickled crabs and grasshoppers, but we won't be supplying recipes for these esoteric delicacies!

Anyone who has a garden or allotment can tailor their cultivation to the needs of the kitchen, and that includes pickling. Most produce is grown for eating fresh, but it is easy to take advantage of gluts, and grow specifically with pickling in mind: for example, pick your baby green tomatoes when they are the size of grapes, or allow a few of your radishes to flower and go to seed so you can harvest the pods for pickling.

Whether you are growing and picking your own or buying from the market, there are a few golden rules. Above all, use the freshest produce you can lay your hands on. Pick from the garden and pickle within 24 hours. Don't be tempted to use pickling as an excuse for using up leftovers or stuff that would be better put on the compost heap. Second-rate ingredients produce second-rate pickles. Also try to follow the seasons, buy what is at its peak, and watch for bargains. Changes in cultivation and the fact that much produce is now imported mean that some vegetables, such as red cabbage, are now available right through the year, not just in the winter months.

Wild food can also be pickled. Our forebears took full advantage of a rich variety of herbs, nuts, berries and fungi — most of which are still to be found around the country. A glance through almost any recipe book of the seventeenth or eighteenth century would reveal pickles made from marsh samphire, alexander buds, ash keys, elder buds and much more. Armed with a copy of Food for Free by Richard Mabey you can track down many of these items and use them for exciting new pickles.

In Britain, we are still nervous about picking and eating wild fungi. Not so in Poland or Italy, where they are an essential part of the larder and are pickled as a matter of course. Scores of edible varieties grow in Britain, and they are worth getting to know. Obviously it is essential that you make use of a good identification guide. We would recommend Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe by Roger Phillips: it is clear, comprehensive and inspires confidence.


Most pickles are brightened up with herbs and spices. They add bite, heat, fragrance and often colour as well. If possible use fresh or freshly picked herbs and don't be afraid to use them generously: a sprig of fresh tarragon can transform a jar of pickled onions. Dried herbs do have their uses, especially in chutneys and other preserves that need to be cooked, but remember they taste stronger than their fresh counterparts, and can lose all flavour if they are old. With dried herbs, the rule is to buy small quantities regularly.

The same applies to spices. Always use whole spices, unless the recipe specifically states 'ground': they have a much higher concentration of aromatic oils, and consequently more flavour. Most supermarkets, good wholefood stores and grocers sell just about everything you might need.

The quantities of herbs and spices given in the recipes are guidelines, rather than hard and fast rules. Don't be afraid to adapt, experiment, improvise and invent new flavours. And follow your own palate; if you don't like the flavour of cinnamon in pickled shallots, leave it out. In practice it will make very little difference to a pickle whether you use a 5 cm (2 inch) or 7.5 cm (3 inch) piece of fresh root ginger.


Salt is a preservative as well as a flavouring. It works in a complicated way by osmosis. Skin and cell membranes are semi-permeable: they allow liquid to pass through them, but the flow is always from the less concentrated to the more concentrated solution. When fruit, vegetables, meat or fish are put into salt or a strong solution of brine, liquid is rapidly drawn out of the tissues. At the same time, salt starts to flow much more slowly from the brine into tissues. This two-way traffic continues until the concentration of the brine and the cell fluids is the same. The salt has then 'struck through'. The combination of salt in the tissues and the lack of moisture inhibits the growth of micro-organisms, thus preserving the food.

Many pickle recipes include dry salting or steeping in brine as the first stage in the process, before the vinegar is added. Other pickles — particularly from Eastern Europe and Japan — are based purely on salt or brine. When making up a brine, use 50 g (2 oz) salt per 600 ml (1 PINT) water. In most cases salting and brining can be done overnight: any longer and the salt flavour is likely to be too strong. Dry salting is best if you want a very crisp pickle.


Excerpted from "The Perfect Pickle Book"
by .
Copyright © 2007 David Mabey and David Collison.
Excerpted by permission of Grub Street.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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