What is fascinating about the humble pickle, seen on every Jewish table whether as a simple accompaniment to a burger, a family roast-chicken dinner, part of a grand Kiddush or a simchah meal, is that its origins reach as far back as 2030 BCE in Mesopotamia where archaeologists discovered pickled cucumber seeds.
They had been carried to the valley of the Tigris by Indian travellers. The pickle is mentioned twice in the Bible, in Isaiah 1:8 and Numbers 11:5; and ever since then, we have saved our glut of foods and pickled for leaner times.
Cleopatra endorsed the pickle as part of her beauty treatment. Julius Caesar recommended his armies were fed pickles to improve their health; and Christopher Columbus transported pickled cucumbers in galleons to the New World in order to prevent the crew from contracting scurvy. The pickle not only boosted the poor and monotonous diets of our Ashkenazi ancestors, but also gave the women of the villages who prepared them a small additional income.
The English word “pickle” seems to come from “pikel”, meaning a spicy-type sauce to eat with poultry or meat, whereas the Dutch “pekel” refers to the solution, maybe a kind of brine used to keep and season the food.
Surprisingly, some nutritionists attribute pickle-eating with good health if eaten in moderation. Those with high blood pressure should avoid pickles cured in salt or brine. However, everyone should be enjoying five fruits and vegetables per day and the mixed-pickle variety offers all sorts of preserved vegetables in a very more-ish manner while at the same time supplying fibre in a low-calorie food, so perfect for weight-watchers.
Pickles can contain minerals such as iron, magnesium and calcium as well as some anti-oxidants; plus additional flavourings such as garlic, ginger, turmeric and mustard, which have their own health attributes. To be fair, however, most people do not eat pickles for health reasons.
So what is it about pickles that has maintained their popularity throughout history? Perhaps it is that fresh, sharp spiciness that cuts through the fattiness of other dishes; the delicious crispness of a fresh cucumber out of the jar. Or that gorgeous aroma when you open a new jar of mixed pickles.
Add chopped pickled cucumber to a good home-made mayonnaise together with chopped capers and chopped chives for a tangy dressing to serve with fried fish.
For a healthy supper dish for four, mix a large tub of low-fat fromage frais with a good spoonful of chraine, some chopped dill and the chopped contents of a vacuum packed packet of fresh beetroot. Then combine this pretty pink salad with one drained jar of pickled herrings cut into bite-size pieces. Serve alongside some hot potatoes in their skins topped with freshly chopped spring onions and enjoy.
The recipe was a challenge. And after much deliberation, chopping, cooking and sterilising of pots, I came to the conclusion that most people wanted short-cuts, especially when there are so many good pickle products about.
So I offer you my mother’s family recipe for pickled cabbage which I have made for 40 years. It is quick, easy, extremely flexible and very successful and does not involve the complicated boiling of jars with their contents.
Pickled red cabbage
● 1 large, firm red cabbage
● Ready spiced vinegar — if not available: simmer 2 pints 1200 ml malt vinegar with 1 tablespoon of pickling spice. Then cool, strain. Save until needed.
● Sterilised jars – glass jars, which have been well-washed, heated in the oven then cooled
● Discard the coarse outside leaves. Cut cabbage into half-centimetre shreds.
● Wash and rinse well. Dry on kitchen roll or cloth.
● Place cabbage shreds in large bowl, cover with a layer of salt.
● Sterilise approx 3-4 jars.
● Leave overnight.
● Strain off any water which has collected with the cabbage. Pack the cabbage into jars and add the spiced vinegar.
● Ready to serve in one week. l Delicious with cold meat/ fish.