Completely pickled

October 1, 2006

Squash and pickling onions

Our kitchen this weekend has been glowing with autumn colours. The rich hues of the red kabacha squash, the pale brittle orange of pickling onions. The tang of bubbling vinegar has been tickling the back of our noses; mounds of soft dark sugar have been slowly settling in the weighing scales. The temperamental weekend weather has provided the perfect excuse to abandon our previous plans (cementing, self-improvement) in favour of an extended pickling session.

Pickling spices

Between the thundery showers we set off on a spice-buying mission to Martyn’s, an old-fashioned grocery on Muswell Hill Broadway. Entering the dimly-lit interior is like walking into the well-stocked larder of an Edwardian stately home. There’s floor-to-ceiling jars of preserves and pickles, tins of loose tea, kitsch biscuit boxes, fruit curds, bags of broken walnuts. The walls are lined with dark wood panelling, a coffee roaster spins slowly in the corner. Crates of wrinkled apricots and prunes sit primly in the window, looking as if they’ve been there since the days of powdered eggs and rationing. You pay for your groceries through a small hatch in the wall, like in an old drug dispensary. Here, shopping becomes a form of time travel.

We re-emerged into the 21st century clutching little sachets of allspice, juniper berries, cinammon sticks and blades of mace. Tiny dry grenades of exotic flavour.

I love the process of pickling. The slow preparation of the ingredients – peeling, soaking, slicing, marinading. The careful weighing and measuring of the vinegar and sugar. The rattle as you throw spoonfuls of cloves and peppercorns in the pan. I also love the paraphernalia – the long-handled wooden spoons, the giant preserving pan, the random collection of rescued jars warming in the oven. I like the build up to the critical moment when you add the sugar to the simmering mixture of vinegar and vegetables, whacking up the heat to full, transforming the pan into a volcanic crater of bubbling, sweet-sour lava.

Pickled onions

This burst of enthusiastic pickling was prompted by the arrival of a 1kilo bag of small onions with this week’s box, and the discovery of a couple of left-over mangos in the fridge. Riverford had usefully thrown detailed pickling instructions into the bag of onions. The first step was to soak the little critters in salted water for 24 hours. A reminder that this preserving malarkey suits those of a patient disposition and plenty of spare time. And then, even after everything is cooked and bottled, you need to wait weeks before you can open the first jar and sample the good sticky stuff inside. An exercise in willpower and deferred gratification.

Mango Chutney

Mango chutney

In an ideal world, all chutney recipes would be treasured family heirlooms, handed down directly from grannie to grandchild, missing out the middle generation (who are too busy ruling the family with an iron-fist to indulge in something as trivial as pickling). However, in the real world, it’s useful to have one of those 1000 Recipes for Jams and Pickles-type books, probably published in the 1970’s by Good Housekeeping or Countrylife. Terrible photos, reliable recipes. Mango Chutney may be the best thing to come out of the British empire – with kedgeree second, the Ashes cricket series third, and Cliff Richard fourth.

You need…
2 tsp pickling spice (we used a mix of allspice, bay leaves, cinnamon, mace, cloves and peppercorns)
12 oz onion, chopped small
2lb mangoes, peeled and cut in largish chunks
1lb cooking apples
2 tsp ginger
1 pint vinegar, we used malt, but I think white wine or cider would produce a better colour.
1 1/4 lb soft brown sugar

1. Tie the spices in a bag.
2. Put all the ingredients except the vinegar and sugar in a pan. Add a small amount of the vinegar.
3. Simmer gently until soft, adding the vinegar a little at a time.
4. Remove the bag of spices.
5. Add the sugar and boil until thick.
6. Turn into dry, hot jars and seal when cold.

Wait… for a month… or two… hmmmm… er… game of scrabble, anyone..?