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Tradition preserved

21 March 2014

By Brian Minter

THE age-old skills of preserving produce were a way of keeping fruits and vegetables edible during the scarcities of winter. This was done by drying and salting, adding sugar, vinegar, or alcohol, and storing in containers.

Today, good-quality seasonal produce is available all year round, and by cooking pickles and relishes yourself, artificial colourings or flavourings are avoided. Coupled with the pleasure of making something, it is a satisfying and fulfilling way to spend an afternoon, and it is exciting when opening a jar for the first time, after it has matured for a few months.

My first taste of a home-made pickle was piccalilli, made by my mother for the cold-meat-and-cheese buffet on Boxing Day. It was planned three months ahead, and cooked in a large aluminium preserving pan, using fresh ingredients.

My first venture into cooking pickles started with my passion for cooking curries. I was not happy simply to cook mild dishes; so I started experimenting with Indian pickle recipes, so that meals could be spiced up. This was very successful, and I still stick to the same recipes that I found years ago. (Take notes each time you cook a pickle or chutney for the first time, in case you need to tweak it later to your own taste.)

I then branched out and began cooking many other pickles and chutneys. Gradually, autumn afternoons have become a conveyor belt of sterilising, dating, and filling jars. I use cleaned, labelled, and sterilised jars, which are returned or collected from a circle of friends and family who are willing to try my creations. Kilner preserving-jars, which have rubber seals, come in different sizes and are good for larger produce such as pickled onions. As long as the storage temperature does not get too high, the jars can be left for at least a month to allow the flavours to develop.

Labels carry important information on content, and eat-by dates; so use clear handwriting. Sticky labels can be bought from supermarkets or hardware stores for a few pounds. A large jam-making pan is useful, but a large saucepan would be suitable for smaller quantities.

Cooking pickles indoors comes with its problems: complaints from my family about smells, stinging eyes, and runny noses prompted a change in venue. I was banished to cooking under an open garage door, on a 15-year-old camping cooker (which I am still using).

I have had a few disasters: the first was when I hurriedly cooked a batch of piccalilli to be given away, and got two tablespoons of sugar mixed up with one teaspoon of salt. Strangely, I had only two complaints, and to this day I wonder what the some of the recipients did with their gifts. And, last year, my tomato chutney ended up like soup, and will be destined for a fruity addition to a stew.

Other than recipes that have been handed down to me, I have been working my way through Pickles, Relishes & Chutneys, by Catherine Atkinson (Anness, 2013), which has been very useful.

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