Pickling? Cue images of unfragrant old men rattling around potting sheds or purple-rinsed grannies bubbling up vats of vinegar to camouflage lacklustre vegetables. It's hardly the sexiest cookery genre, is it? There are those rare inexplicable occasions when you're overtaken by a sudden urge for a pickled onion, but generally these tongue-curling comestibles are bought in an unfocused supermarket moment then left to languish, untouched, in the kitchen cupboard.
It wasn't always like this. Back in the 16th century, pickled delicacies were decidedly en vogue. As Englishmen of a certain standing began glugging on the ever-increasing array of beers and wines, they turned their back on salted foods – leaving them to the poor – and turned their attention to the delights of the pickled egg, the pickled walnut and, yes, the pickled onion. And if Nick Sandler has his way, these vinegary morsels are set to win a whole legion of new converts.
In fact, with his new book Preserved, co-authored with food writer Johnny Acton, the British chef is hoping to reignite interest not only in all things pickled, but in all things candied, salted, fermented, dried, cured, smoked, jammed and confit-ed. In this age of aversion to mass-produced and artificially-flavoured food, a world where straying from the "organic and seasonal" code can seem like a cardinal sin, food preserving might just provide our salvation.
"What's so wonderful about preserving is that you can enjoy seasonal foods whenever you want but they retain a true flavour," Nick explains. "And you can tailor the taste to just the way you like it, rather than having to accept the supermarket offerings designed to suits the tastebuds of Mr and Mrs Two Point Four Children."
And so we begin with the cucumber. It might be the definition of cool for idiom-lovers, but for preserving fanatics, the lowly green vegetable is the definition of pickle. In fact, as Nick gaily recounts, pickled cucumbers are so prevalent that they're often simply called pickles. Helen, my culinary accomplice for the day, throws me a look. Cucumbers are not the stuff of which domestic goddesses are made, it says. I couldn't agree more.
But we knuckle down, cutting the cucumbers lengthways into four and arranging them in a glass jar. Into a saucepan go rosemary, bay leaves, black peppercorns, salt and water. It's all brought up to boiling point, and then cooled before white wine vinegar is added and the whole mixture poured over the vegetables. Fifteen minutes later and we're all done – well apart from the month the sealed jar must now spend somewhere dark and cool. However, that's a month in which you can rustle up the accompanying salt beef to make the sandwich beloved of Jewish delis everywhere.
"Preserved" goods are by no means served up in isolation. Nick and Johnny help you master the pickle or the jam, and then tempt you with a recipe featuring the newly-made foodstuff. So Preserved Lemons (arguably the easiest recipe in the book) are followed by a tasty tagine-style lamb dish, the home-made plum sauce is put to good use in duck pancakes and the peach compote forms the basis for a comforting crumble.
"The key thing to remember, is it's not about using up crap. This isn't like in the war when they pickled the spoiled ration leftovers, anxious not to waste a scrap," says Nick. "Sure, preserving is still a good way to deal with a glut of say artichokes or tomatoes, but the golden rule is using good-quality ingredients when they're still fresh. That way you'll get fabulous-tasting products."
It's time for our next culinary challenge. Given the abundance of tomatoes at this time of year, we decide on home-made ketchup – move over Heinz. Our rustic version takes full advantage of the herbs freshly plucked from Nick's back garden: bay leaves, rosemary, thyme and parsley. Added to those is a hefty handful of garlic and a couple of boxes of baby tomatoes that range from pale amber, through burnt orange to pillarbox red. It all sweats on the stove for half an hour and is then pushed through a wide sieve. Next we add vinegar, sugar and salt, adjusting the balance of tartness and sweetness until it is just right. It is fair to say the breadth and depth of tastes delivered from a single mouthful of our final product puts homogenised shop-bought sauces to shame.
Nick shows us a bottle he made earlier, complete with home-made label. There is something incredibly endearing about a professional cook (whose current day job is as Pret a Manger's creative chef) tinkering around on the computer to design a label for the sauce that his two young children will shake on to their chips. Almost in unison, and with infantile delight in our voices, Helen and I find ourselves squealing that we want a label too. Our ketchup has been a totally collaborative effort but I'm relieved to see that as I'm scrawling Claire onto my little bottle of red stuff, Helen is being equally self-centred in the christening of her condiment.
It's at this point, I start to fully appreciate the pleasure that comes from creating these things from scratch. We don't need to bother with preserving these days. Unlike our wild ancestors forced to eat on the hoof, there is refrigeration, industrial smokers and vacuum packing that let us eat anything we want at any time we want it. But "self-preservation" brings an immense amount of satisfaction, beyond the opportunity for smugness. The preserving process forces you to slow down, go back to basics, tune in to a more relaxed rhythm. And the end result is inevitably aesthetically pleasing. Take the jar of artichoke confit – the hearts set off with a well-placed decorative herb, black peppercorns suspended mid-oil, all glistening behind the curve of the glass.
But I'm preaching to the preacher. Nick, whose area of expertise is food processes, takes the preservation patter to a whole new level. He could pontificate about pectin, spout about setting points, and bang on about bacteria for hours. At one point, he rather comically wails that he's out of litmus paper, which means we won't be able to ascertain the pH level of our pickled cucumbers. (We managed to get over the trauma.)
But fear not. If you don't want to be bamboozled by the intricacies of the technical processes, it's easy enough to dodge them in this preserving bible. Don't fancy constructing a drying box (essentially a wooden box fitted with a light bulb) to make your semi-dried tomatoes? Just use an oven turned down low.
Of course, those wanting more of a challenge (or ponce factor) will not be disappointed. Try tackling the smoked salmon, which calls for a do-it-yourself cold smoker, or the breasola where you'll need to tend to your strung-up beef joint for a month, monitoring it for the faintest hint of the wrong sort of mould. In all likelihood, most of us will simply gaze at the mouth-watering photographs for a few moments and then turn the page to a simpler dish.
One world of caution, however. Preserving food does not automatically translate into preserving cash. Although pickling might seem apt for our credit-crunching times, you can easily use a bottle of vinegar or oil in a single recipe and they don't come especially cheap. Equally if you live in a gardenless flat, you won't have that ready supply of fruit and vegetables that will need using up as soon as they come into season. But you'll more than make up for what you spend in flavours, not to mention fun. So, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to track down some jam jars.
'Preserved' by Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton, Kyle Cathie, £14.99
That little slice of tangy green in your burger has a very long and distinguished pedigree. Cucumbers originated in India and the Mesopotamians were pickling them in brine 4,500 years ago. Aristotle praised their healing effects and Cleopatra considered them an important beauty aid.
Pickled cucumber comes in endless forms, ranging from the hefty dill pickle to the tiny eye-watering cornichon.
Pickling varieties of cucumber are slightly different from the slicing kind, typically being thicker skinned with somewhat bumpy surfaces. The formula below is Jewish in origin.
6 large pickling cucumbers
1.8 litres water
3 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh tarragon
300ml cider vinegar
Slice the cucumbers lengthways, then de-seed them by scooping the centre out with a teaspoon. Cut the cucumbers into slices approximately 1.5cm thick.
Heat the water to boiling point with the cloves, cardamom, peppercorns, caraway, bay leaves, tarragon and salt. Leave to cool, then add the vinegar. Stuff the cucumbers into sterilised jars, inserting a sprig of tarragon half way up.
Pour in the pickling liquid to cover the cucumbers and seal the jars. Make sure the lids do not have exposed metal on the inside. If they do, cut out some card to cover it.
Leave the cucumbers to ferment for a month in a cool dark place such as a cellar. They should now be firm and sharp-tasting.
An unopened jar of pickled cucumbers will keep for a year or longer. Once opened, refrigerate and consume within two months.