Sam Buckley: on autumn pickling

by Sam Buckley 27 October 2021

Noticing the changes of the seasons in his vegetable patch, chef Sam Buckley turns his attention to the preserving jar and shares his secrets to making the very best pickles.

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With an arsenal of innovative experimental preserves, his own rooftop kitchen garden and relationships with the best producers in the UK, Sam Buckley works with his team in the airy open kitchen to create multi-course tasting menus of pure magic at his Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In.

With an arsenal of innovative experimental preserves, his own rooftop kitchen garden and relationships with the best producers in the UK, Sam Buckley works with his team in the airy open kitchen to create multi-course tasting menus of pure magic at his Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In.

This week, stepping outside for a morning coffee on the porch, I felt the first ‘proper’ day of autumn. The sky was an exaggerated neon blue, blotched by white foaming clouds and the thrusts of a jet engine. The air was clean and crisp, as delicate and honed as porcelain. The old lyme tree that towers at the back of the garden was in the process of becoming a mosaic of green, gold and brown leaves; uncertain of its own stages yet making myself certain of the changing of the seasons. The wall that runs adjacent from my house glistened with a garland of Virginia creeper, now a vivid crimson, each leaf taking in the sun’s rays and blushing vibrantly – a perfect clash against the bright sky. Underneath this circus of colour runs my vegetable patch, displaying as much polarity in its own little world.

Autumn is when a vegetable patch shows you the perfunctory evidence of life and death; the full cycle. Newly planted turnips, pak choi, rocket and spinach – the true leaves of which peep up through fallen red leaves with gallant optimism – are gathering all the energy they can to grow strong and endure the cold nights ahead. The brassicas are already well into their adolescence, displaying fountains of green, leathery plumage now sturdy enough to face the weather and make good of the rains, shaking off sluggish droplets with the defiance of a teenager to the soil below for their roots to take up.

Amidst the infancy of this new growth, late summer crops show signs of age. The beans have given their last fruit and although the vines still stand, they seem to use the hazel frames to support themselves rather than as a climbing apparatus. Marigolds drop their colourful petals and display bare seed pods wrapped in cardigans of brown and beige; courgettes that boasted broad leaves begin to mottle and draw back. Along the patio the tomato vines wither and their bony fingers bear the last straggle of green fruit that never made it to full maturity, hunching their shoulders and struggling to stay upright. It is time to evict them from their pots onto the compost heap, making me feel like a villainous landlord from a bleak Victorian novel.

Herbs have flowered and gone to seed, their leaves yellow and withered in a sorry state that leave only a memory of their former vitality. At least here I can show some mercy as I prune back the leaves and branches, hanging them to dry to make use of in teas and the seasoning of sauces. If these crops are not taken from the soil, they will begin their inevitable assimilation back into the earth. Leaves will freeze and, unable to garner energy from the sun, will slowly rot and decay with a contradictory majesty.

It is this reordering of the seasons that I find most brutal. Tearing up plants that have provided so much pleasure in aesthetics and flavour during meals enjoyed outdoors in the hazy summer evenings is not easy. They have given so much, and so it is with difficulty that I pull them up from the soil to make way for winter crops. If it were not me, nature would gladly do the job, but I still find it so ungrateful; so ruthless and final.

Of course, with these feelings comes a celebratory balance in the fact that this is the season of harvest: our most abundant time of year which seems to make the coming sparseness even more startling. In the kitchen we are busier than ever, taking these last pickings from our rooftop garden The Landing to pickle, salt, dry and turn into oils, all to be stored carefully for the frugal months ahead. They will play a role as both the lead and supporting characters on plates throughout the sparse winter, and their abundance brings with it ideas and excited discussions of what can be achieved.

You can never pay too much attention to pickles. What seems like a simple process can snowball into a lifetime of learning through trial and error. Both growing and preserving invite the slowest of learning processes. Like the damsons I spoke of last month, each vegetable grown, harvested and preserved only allows for one attempt at each given stage in each calendar year. One must record the method, the progress and the final outcomes either mentally or in a notebook, store that information until a complete revolution of the wheel has been made and make the needed adjustments to the soil or salt the following year. This is both fulfilling and infuriating at the same time.

The key to a strong and lasting pickle is in a good salting beforehand. Whatever is primed for the jar should be treated with a generous amount of sea salt and rubbed gently, then left for a few hours (or even overnight if the veg is particularly robust) to allow the pores to open up and become ready to take in the acidic liquor. After that a dilution of good vinegar, sugar and water can be made to taste, flavoured with whatever aromatics take your fancy. This really is a creative process and confidence in your freedom to experiment will produce the best results. Confidence of course comes with experience – and experience is fuelled by trial and error – so be brave.

Last year I made a pickle with the remainder of my red cabbage. After an argument with my partner, I zealously oversalted the cabbage in the primary stage. The saltiness was hard to overcome, even through the sweet pickle that I poured over the top. The jar sat in a dark corner of my cupboard for months.

I came back to that jar this week, eager with the thoughts of hotpot and casseroles over the winter. I popped the lid to find a vivid purple pickle, still sweet and crunchy. It turned out that the oversalting had allowed the pickle to ferment steadily, keeping it well protected against the pathogens that are detrimental to colour and texture. This slow, steady ferment has produced amazingly complex flavours. Tonnes of meatiness; a mushroom-like savouriness that rubs up against caramel sweetness, whilst the punch of acid shines over the top of it all, enveloping the taste in a blanket of harmony. I think both my friends and the hotpot will be thankful of my eager hand when a bowl of this crunchy pickle is offered at the table.

Time can be a great ally of the preservation jar. Perhaps I should be glad of my hand in the cycle as I place the last of my late summer crops into their pickling liquors, where they will suspend patiently in a kind of purgatory – awaiting their final judgment on the plates of next winter.