We have been preserving things in vinegar for literally thousands of years, meaning this method of food preservation is unarguably one of our most favoured and effective. At times of scarcity, along comes the humble pickle to relieve us of boredom or, more impressively, vitamin deficiencies. At times of feast, what better way to perk up a Boxing Day banquet than with a large dollop of piccalilli and a pickled onion?
‘When dishes survive there is good reason,’ writes Diana Henry in her excellent book Salt Sugar Smoke. ‘They are lodged in a country’s culture; they’re not faddy.’ So it is with pickles, which, on reading up, you will find have not changed significantly since the beginning.
In her eponymous Book of Household Management, Mrs Beeton writes endearingly of Greek and Roman pickles that ‘consisted of flowers, herbs, roots and vegetables preserved in vinegar’. Their various ingredients, macerated in oil, brine and vinegar, ‘often impregnated drop by drop’.
Of course, we have plenty of variations, from quick pickles to not-in-the-least-quick pickles, water pickles to oil pickles, refrigerator pickles to fermented pickles. But no matter where you go in the world, the one golden rule of pickling has remained since antiquity; to preserve all you can of the best quality you can find while it is available.