A right old pickle

Delicious to eat and the perfect Christmas present. Mark Hix rediscovers the ancient art of preserving fruit and vegetables
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Pickles and preserves in pretty jars and bottles make lovely presents. And it seems we're prepared to pay a fortune for a fancy pot of jam or relish if it looks as if it was home-made – in someone else's home. More and more people are turning their kitchens into a small business, bottling jams and chutneys, relishes and sauces that try to be just like granny used to make. Meanwhile, fewer of us actually get round to making our own. But you don't have to turn your kitchen into a production line to compete with these thriving businesses. It's fun to have a go making small batches yourself, producing unique treats – for a fraction of the price you'd pay. And it's far more impressive to offer your own as gifts. Some of them also look almost too good to eat.

Pickles and preserves in pretty jars and bottles make lovely presents. And it seems we're prepared to pay a fortune for a fancy pot of jam or relish if it looks as if it was home-made – in someone else's home. More and more people are turning their kitchens into a small business, bottling jams and chutneys, relishes and sauces that try to be just like granny used to make. Meanwhile, fewer of us actually get round to making our own. But you don't have to turn your kitchen into a production line to compete with these thriving businesses. It's fun to have a go making small batches yourself, producing unique treats – for a fraction of the price you'd pay. And it's far more impressive to offer your own as gifts. Some of them also look almost too good to eat.

Almost any fruit or vegetable can be pickled – it's how they were preserved before tins and freezers came along. It isn't hard to get started either. Once you get going and have got the hang of how pickling times and flavourings vary according to the fruit and vegetables being preserved, you can be as creative as you like with combinations and flavours. Garlic cloves, duck eggs, lychees and lemons ... just go for it.

Equipment

If you have a well-equipped kitchen then you should have everything you need. Always use stainless-steel bowls and pans as the vinegar will react with other metals, affecting the results. Use wide-necked jars and preferably Kilner jars with rubber seals (they look good too). Sarsons sells vinegar in jars that are specially designed for pickling, with non-corrosive lids – a great idea. Don't be tempted to fill old jars with damaged tops as it won't do much for the keeping quality and won't look too good either, especially if your handiwork is going to be given away.

Brining sounds offputting, but don't let it worry you. You may have to brine some vegetables, as it draws out excess water, and helps if you're planning to keep your handiwork for a while. There are two ways of brining: dry-salting, where the fruits or vegetables are scattered liberally with salt and left to drain, and wet-brining, where salt is dissolved in water which is then poured over the vegetables. Believe it or not it doesn't make the vegetables salty. Either way the salt is rinsed off thoroughly, and the vegetables are then dried off quickly to avoid any more absorption.

Sterilising is another key word. Jars must be sterilised before use. They should be washed in very hot soapy water and well rinsed. This can be done with a dishwasher. Sterilising tablets can also be used if your water is not that hot. The jars can then be dried in a low oven (140°C/290°F/Gas mark 1). If you are filling jars with hot items like chutneys or jams, the jars will need to be kept hot to avoid cracking as they're filled. If you are using a recipe that requires the jars to be filled cold, the jars should be dried with kitchen paper, not a dirty tea towel. Use clean surgical, disposable gloves or a new pair of rubber gloves when bottling to avoid any bacteria forming. Touching the rubber seal with dirty hands is a common mistake that can spoil a carefully prepared pickle or preserve. Once made, all pickles, chutneys and jams should be stored in a cool, dark place. Keeping times can also vary according to personal preference. Fruits with alcohol can be kept for up to a year, although they will be pretty lethal when opened. I've kept pickled chillies for two years and they were great. Chutneys are fine for six months, or more if you keep them somewhere cool.

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