After the excesses of December — too much food, too much drink, too much stuff — what will you feel like eating in January? I think it is likely to be something sharp and simple, and one of the best combinations is plain steamed rice, slightly charred, crisp-skinned, fatty meat (mackerel, chicken thigh, slow-cooked pork shoulder), and a light refreshing pickle.
For a quick pickle, meant to be eaten within days, or hours, I would start with David Chang’s Momofuku (Absolute Press, £25) brine: 125ml rice vinegar, 200ml hot water, 5 tablespoons sugar, 2 teaspoons salt, just stirred together until everything has dissolved. There’s no need to sterilise your jars as it won’t be kept very long. Finely slice something crunchy and a little bit fibrous — a few sticks of celery, a couple of apples, carrots cut into matchsticks, or, best of all, a bulb or two of fennel, which Ocado assures me is in season. Add it to the brine, put it in the fridge and get on with your life. You can leave it for a few days or eat it as soon as it’s cold. Treat it as a low-stress, reviving wintry vegetable.
The status of pickles elsewhere in the world is high: delicately pickled seasonal vegetables form one of the courses — konomono — of the Japanese haute cuisine, kaiseki. Korea without kimchi is barely conceivable. Turkish grocery shops are stacked with gigantic plastic jars of turşu (mixed vegetable pickles) and on holiday in Trabzon last summer I drank şalgam, the spiced, lightly fermented juice of pickled red carrots and turnips — popular in eastern Turkey, difficult but not impossible to get hold of in the UK.
There isn’t really an English equivalent to this omnipresence. The difference, I think, is that in other countries it is still normal to make your pickles yourself, which has not been the case in the UK for a long time — although this may be changing. The 1907 edition of Mrs Beeton says “very few” pickle at home, “save those who grow vegetables they cannot utilise in any other way”, which is hardly a recommendation. For active encouragement, you have to go back to the original Mrs Beeton, in 1861, who advises you to “have ready a jar of pickle-juice . . . into which to put occasionally some young French beans, cauliflowers, &c,” although this is still not exactly elegant and suggests a cupboard full of ominous jars, like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And pickles are not treated particularly well in literature: D.H. Lawrence includes them, in 1926, in a list of depressing, dreary foods in “The Virgin and the Gypsy” — “Roast beef and wet cabbage, cold mutton and mashed potatoes, sour pickles, inexcusable puddings” — suggestive of the suffocating family life endured by the story’s protagonist, Yvette.
Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume, in 1956, are on the defensive: “Some epicures regard pickles with a certain amount of scorn, the suggestion being that the enjoyment of them indicates a jaded appetite, or an inability to make a good sauce . . . I do not believe that the old-fashioned road-mender eating his piece, bread, cheese, and pickled onion, suffered from a jaded appetite.” There is a sense that a pickle, no matter how delicious, is crude, a form of cheating, perhaps because pickles satisfy almost all the fundamental tastes at once — salty, sour, sweet, and often bitter as well. Fermented pickles, like kimchi, are also umami (savoury); fermentation frees naturally-present glutamate, an amino acid.
Liking sour things is also, scientifically, childish: in a 2003 taste experiment with flavoured jelly, more than a third of children liked the sourest option best, but almost no adults did. Charles Darwin observed, of his own children, that “they strongly preferred the most sour and tart of fruits, as for instance unripe gooseberries.” In Little Women Amy describes a schoolyard craze for pickled limes:
“The girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else, at recess. If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime. If she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck.”
The 12-year-old Amy, who has a stash of limes in her desk, is made to throw them out of the classroom window, “two by two”, upon which “one passionate lime lover burst into tears”. I imagine the 19th-century pickled lime was something like a Moroccan preserved lemon (briny, fermented) but occupying the same playground niche as the much-prized Haribo Tangfastic (chewy, fizzy, moreish). John Matteson in The Annotated Little Women (W.W. Norton, £25) explains that the pickled limes would have come from the Caribbean, preserved in salt (as Moroccan preserved lemons are), but the recipe he gives is for a much more elaborate sweetmeat: hollowed-out lime skins crystallised in syrup and filled with citrus jelly. I’m not quite sure how to proceed with making the allegedly “fashionable pickle” but I’ve scrubbed some supermarket limes and sunk them in brine in a sterilised jar to see what happens — Moroccan preserved lemons are generally allowed to ferment at room temperature for weeks or even months.
Today the pickle has acquired a hipster cachet and “artisan” brands made by bearded men are proliferating. Marks & Spencer sells one of the best, McClure’s, for £8 a jar, which definitely feels like too many pounds to spend on a pickle whim; they are, unfortunately, extremely good. The hipster-parodying sketch show Portlandia features enthusiastic pickle-makers who claim (or threaten) to pickle anything: ice cream, dead pets, parking tickets, a man’s penis.
The hardcore (or foolhardy) can use pickle brine in the “pickleback”, the closest thing to a pickle cocktail: a shot of whiskey chased with a shot of pickle juice.
Most recently I enjoyed a dish of amla achaar — Indian gooseberries pickled in salt, spices and oil — extremely sour, salty, astringent and fibrous. I ate about five just by themselves, finding them almost caper-like, or olive-like. I made my mother eat one. She didn’t like it.