Food trend: Why the culinary art of pickling is back in vogue

Words by
Chloe Scott-Moncrieff

14th May 2018

With the opening of London’s first ever picklery and a host of prestigious eateries perfecting the technique, it seems this gastronomic trend is here to stay

Pickling goes way back to the Egyptians and Sumerians who discovered how to preserve vegetables using fermentation in 2000BC. Jump forward 1,500 years to Roman times and Julius Caesar included spiced and preserved cucumbers in his legionnaires’ rations. By this time, vegetables were preserved by first steeping them in brine or dry salt and then preserving them in acetic acid, a process that forms the basis of pickling as we know it today.

In the UK, pickles first appeared centre stage as long ago as medieval times, when they were served as a dish in their own right at the court of King John. Later, Elizabeth I was a well-known fan, as was Shakespeare, who mentioned pickling in his plays and gave rise to the common British idiom “in a pickle”— a line from The Tempest. By the 18th century, the English aristocracy took to pickles in a big way.

So it seems only right that pickling is enjoying a renaissance in London’s finest establishments, where every chef worth their Wüsthof knife has a stash of jars stuffed with idiosyncratic fermented edibles.

grouse
Grouse with pickled carrot at Marcus

Grouse with pickled carrot at Marcus

Head to the kitchens of Marcus Wareing’s two Michelin-starred restaurant, Marcus at The Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge, Tredwells in Covent Garden or The Gilbert Scott in St Pancras and you’ll find comestibles left languishing in pickling liquors made from vinegars, salts and sugars for weeks, months even. The aim is to gain piquancy, says Chantelle Nicholson, chef patron and head of operations at Tredwells. “Obviously, pickling goes back centuries. It was necessary because of lack of refrigeration and it expands the lifespan of food, but we do it because it’s exciting, it enhances flavour and it’s good for you.”

Her prize jars include green almonds left to mingle in a brine with fennel seeds. “They’ll be ready in October. Then I’ll grate them into salads, or mix them with crab.”

duck
Duck breast with cashew, tamarind freekah and pickled plums by Chantelle Nicholson, chef patron at Tredwells

Duck breast with cashew, tamarind freekah and pickled plums by Chantelle Nicholson, chef patron at Tredwells

Cherries are also being tinkered with. “We’re pickling cherries with cloves, star anise and cinnamon sticks at the moment. Then they’ll go with a chicken parfait or duck or into a dessert to cut into the sweetness.” Yet even for modern preservers, it’s not just about flavour. “We’re seeing more of this in the restaurants because we’re all more aware of food waste and this is one way of addressing it,” says Nicholson.

One obvious example of this is Hoxton’s Scout — newly opened by top bartender Matt Whiley — where the mantra is zero waste. The ever-changing menu uses a riot of aged seasonal British ingredients to ensure nothing ends up in the bin. “House ferments” include potations such as raspberry with lemon balm, tomato vinegar, apricot and petit grain.

We’re seeing more of this in the restaurants because we’re all more aware of food waste
and this is one way of addressing it

Nearby at Anglo, on the edge of the financial City in Clerkenwell, chef Mark Jarvis, formerly of two-Michelin-star Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, espouses pickling for its acidic nuances, which counterbalance sweetness so perfectly. On his illustrious seven-course menu that critics rave about, plant matter as diverse as artichokes and chamomile has been subjected to the pickling process. “Pickles are terrific — the acidity and delicate flavour of the pickled artichoke, for example, really pairs well with rich, fatty lamb.

“Our salt-baked beetroot dish comes with pickled chamomile to balance out the deep, earthy flavour of the beet with the light, floral chamomile notes,” he continues.

His strawberry dessert uses multiple fermentation methods to make a strawberries and cream pudding with a twist. “First, we make a strawberry vinegar, let it ferment for a day or so, then turn this into a gel. This is served with whole pickled strawberries, raspberry juice and salted clotted cream. The acidity from the pickled elements balances the rich clotted cream very nicely.”

tomatoes
Anglo's Isle of Wight tomatoes and seaweed

Anglo's Isle of Wight tomatoes and seaweed

So far, so British. But other pioneers are looking to Asia. Mark Dobbie trained under David Thompson at Nahm in Bangkok and at his eatery Som Saa in Spitalfields the chef experiments with Thai pickling recipes. “There’s a really wide and varied amount of food that is fermented in Thailand, often utilising the warmth of the sun and the lactobacillus bacteria, which naturally occurs in rice. At Som Saa, we are pickling everything from pork ribs, mushrooms and even fish, mixed with rice and garlic.” The process is pretty technical. “As the lactobacillus starts feeding on the carbohydrates in the rice, it excretes lactic acid, which in turn lowers the pH, making the product safe to eat and pleasantly sour. It takes about three days at an ambient temperature of 33-35°C.”

But it’s geekery that’s an attraction here. While Dobbie takes a scientific approach to the temperature and timings, in the kitchens of recently-opened Neo Bistro in Mayfair, chef Alex Harper uses unwavering precision to make the liquor. “We use a combination of whey and 1% salt for our ferments. We currently have around 30-35 jars with different bits inside. Then we add spices and herbs as appropriate.”

His sake pickled lemons go with turbot, fermented wild garlic is for lamb and green strawberries are an accoutrement for pigeon. By September, the larder is full of kale, chervil roots, cèpes, Jerusalem artichokes and pumpkins in jars.

Turbot
Turbot with sea kale, white anchovies and pickled lemon from Neo Bistro

Turbot with sea kale, white anchovies and pickled lemon from Neo Bistro

Co-founders Rory McCoy and Clare Lattin at Rawduck in Hackney plan to follow a similar approach when they open Britain’s first picklery at Little Duck on a Victorian terrace in East London this autumn, where a whole range of influences will be at play. Oriental kombuchas will jostle for space next to lines of drinking vinegars, fashionable in West Coast US. Lattin, an advocate of the health benefits, believes the revival of what was considered to be an antiquated activity is because “it makes nutrients available to the body. Certain foods, such as soybeans for example, are no good for us unless they are fermented.”

gaeng gari
Gaeng gari jay or yellow chicken curry at Som Saa

Gaeng gari jay or yellow chicken curry at Som Saa

sour stuff at gilbert scott
A drop of the sour stuff at The Gilbert Scott

A drop of the sour stuff at The Gilbert Scott

And whatever their original impetus, all the chefs agree on one thing — pickles offer good gut bacteria, so not only is pickling in vogue, but it’s also good for you.