More than any cooking technique in the world, it links the cuisines of West and East, cold Northern Europe and steamy Latin America, bog-standard British pubs and the world's finest three-star kitchens. Pickling may sound rustic, old-style and downmarket, but Britain's trendiest chefs can't keep their hands out of the preserving jar.
There's a reason why immersing fish, vegetables and meat in a sweet and short or long, hot acid bath has become a daily routine in the restaurant kitchens of London's Hoxton, Fitzrovia and Soho. Think of those onions that so satisfyingly speak to the vinegar on your fish and chips, the lime pickle that lifts a curry, the crisp slivers of pink ginger that cleanse the palate between every bite of sushi. Or the deep-fried dill pickles that zing up pulled pork at the likes of Meat Liquor and Pitt Cue, the piccalilli that has been a delicious staple at Canteen since it opened, and the tiny pickled walnuts Jeremy Lee serves with his onglet at Quo Vadis.
Lee also pickles samphire and seaweed "more and more, I find – and cucumber, beetroot, green tomato, fennel, asparagus sometimes. Lovely!" while Brett Graham is another aficionado of pickled samphire, which he steeps briefly in two parts apple juice to one part cider vinegar at The Ledbury. Pickled samphire inevitably finds its way on to fish plates, emphasising the happy marriage between seafood and acid echoed in the ceviches of Peru and Mexico – here it's lime and lemon juice which do their work directly on the fish – and the picada of pickled vegetables with other antipasti that kicks off a meal in Argentina as surely as tsukemono does in Japan.
Fermented and pickled vegetables are natural digestifs, which might just be why the most important element of a choucroute is the sauerkraut – it helps all that pork to go down nicely and stops fatty meat cloying on the palate. But an acid bath is much more than a digestive aid; it elevates a vegetable from mere side dish to star of the show. It's the finely shredded cabbage pickled in white wine and caraway for which choucroute is as revered as fervently by every Frenchman as kimchi –cabbage fermented with fiery spices – is worshipped half a world away in Korea.
It's tempting to think that Jason Freedman, who pickles every vegetable imaginable as well as fish and meat at The Minnis, near Margate, got the impetus from his Jewish heritage. I remember my own mother's kitchen cupboards, perpetually deep in stone jars packed with pickled onions, ridge cucumbers and cabbage, both white and red. But Freedman's inspiration was the Romans, not the Jews of Eastern Europe, who never saw a fresh vegetable in winter: "I took to pickling when I became interested in really old cooking techniques practised thousands of years ago in this area," explains Freedman, who uses hot, long-pickle brines for his vegetables and cold, fast brines for fish dishes such as his Asian-style salmon.
"I started curing and salting beef, progressed to pastrami and salami, then turned my attention to pickled fish and vegetables." For which read beetroot, carrots with lemongrass, cucumbers, Japanese vegetables, salmon, mackerel and sweet pickled herring, which he infuses with Szechuan peppercorns, mace, coriander and mustard seeds before steeping in malt vinegar and brown sugar for 24 hours. Such "day pickles" – they include "new greens", the still-bright green and crunchy cucumbers the best delis spice and acidify only briefly – are the modern take on the sousing, or hot pickling, technique originally introduced to Britain to preserve food.
Bruce Wilson of the Paternoster Chop House, which embraces pickling as an essential tradition of British cooking, says: "Orange- and fennel-soused mackerel is one of my favourite dishes." Meat can be pickled, too. Diego Jacquet of Zoilo adores lengua a la Provenzal, the Argentinian favourite of ox tongue pickled with white vinegar and profuse amounts of parsley and chopped garlic: "In a sandwich with horseradish it's great."
Even fruit is getting into a pickle at the hands of David Everitt-Matthias of the two-Michelin-starred Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham. "I pickle green elderberries before they ripen; they come right after the flowers. I use them in winter like capers in a jus or dressing to lighten rich, heavy food, and in the summer I pickle peaches when they're prolific to liven up langoustines or roasted monkfish. I put them in a hot, dry pan to char them and bring the sweetness of them forward."
In Japan, although pickling is as much an ancient tradition, it also celebrates the arrival of a new crop of prized ingredients: "We spent hours in May and June pickling the young ginger which had just been harvested, preserving up to 10 kilos each day over the course of a week," remembers Yoshinori Ishii of Umu, who now adds kombu kelp to his own bespoke blend of seasoning when pickling ginger in his Mayfair kitchen. "There are hundreds of different pickles in Japan, and I love a big bowl with steamed or fried rice."
Across town in Hoxton, they can't get enough of them at Master & Servant: "We long-pickle cucumbers, red onions and chillies, put salsify and radishes in two-day pickles, and our sliced cucumber for garnish is a day-pickle. By contrast, we ferment fennel and cabbage, our take on kimchi, with sugar, salt, ginger, spring onions and ground red pepper for up to three weeks," says Matt Edwards. At Caravan, Miles Kirby pickles mackerel to serve with avocado and sweetcorn, celery to accompany chicken livers, and chucks pickled tomato into a Bloody Mary.
In fact, pickles are as popular now in groovy bars as trendy restaurants – pickleback cocktails, as served at the Electric Diner and Pitt Cue, take their name from the brine saved from pickled cucumber, added to a shot of bourbon for a salty kick. At 69 Colebrooke Row, Tony Conigliaro goes one step further, pickling walnuts in sherry vinegar and barley malt to garnish a gin-and-amontillado-sherry martini, and adding pickled-onion liquor to his otherwise classic Gibson.
But possibly Britain's most innovative pickling chef is James Knappett of Kitchen Table, who applies the technique to elderflowers and dog rose he picks in Hammersmith, rock samphire and sea beans from Cornwall, and blackberries foraged in Richmond Park. Down the road at Gail's Kitchen, James Adams is currently pickling eggs to use with bone-marrow butter in his new steak sandwich – read that and weep, you burger joints still settling for that ubiquitous slice of common or garden dill pickle.
PICKLES TO GO
Sainsbury's reports a surge of more than 400 per cent in sales of pickled cucumbers and sells multiple varieties in its Polish section – a good place to start when shopping for ready-made pickles.
Andre Dang makes a delicious piccalilli from vegetables that are hand-cut and salted overnight before being rinsed, tipped into a mustard-vinegar sauce and cooked in a water bath for 20 minutes. welovemanfood.com
Pauline Hickson pickles free-range eggs from her own chickens and those of neighbouring Kent farms for the Challock Chutney Company – good with a salad. challockchutneycompany.moonfruit.com
Quails' eggs are among the more unusual items supplied to supermarkets by Opies, a family firm that also makes a sweet pickle of organic courgettes, cauliflower, carrots, onions and swede to serve with hard cheese or cold meats.