Sunday, March 30, 2014

In a Pickle

by Lauren Gilbert

Being American, when I think of “pickle”, I think of pickled cucumbers heavy with dill and garlic. Pickled beets, too, are a favourite of mine. However, in Georgian England, a wide range of foods was pickled, as it was still a common method of preservation. Many exotic foods from other parts of the world became popular in a pickled form, as that was the only way they could be preserved for shipping.

Pickling, as in preserving via a brine or salt solution, has been known since ancient times. Some attribute it to the ancient Egyptians. China, Mesopotamia and India also used this method. (Pickled cucumbers were a favourite in ancient India.) Once disseminated to the Romans, the rest, as they say, is history. In one form or another, pickling has been used for centuries in virtually all cultures. The word pickle itself is supposed to derive from the old Dutch “pekel” which meant the pickling brine or a spicy sauce. Pickling was a common method of preserving seasonal food for later use. The item to be pickled was usually steeped in brine (usually water with a quantity of salt “enough to float an egg”) and then boiled in a mixture of vinegar, salt and other spices. The early cook books are filled with recipes for a variety of pickled vegetables and other items.

In England, pickles of various kinds have always been popular. However, it is important to realize that a wide range of foodstuffs were pickled, ranging from various vegetables, to eggs, fish, meats and poultry. Today, we forget that eggs and vegetables were once seasonal foods, and pickling was a favourite means of extending their shelf life. The addition of spices, sugar and herbs imparted a strong flavour that must have made dining much more pleasurable, especially during the colder months when pickled foods would have been consumed most frequently. Elizabeth I and Samuel Pepys were known to be fond of pickles and pickled fruits and vegetables of all kinds were commonly served on their own in pickle dishes or used in sauces.

A popular dish in England for centuries was puffin meat and, in the Georgian era, pickled puffin was quite popular. A sea bird whose diet is mainly fish, pickling not only preserved the meat but helped to reduce the strong fishy taste. The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies blog posted a recipe for pigeons “to make pigeons look like puffins” (this would appeal to someone who could not afford puffin meat which was a delicacy). This recipe includes boiling the meat in a mixture that included vinegar. While it was intended to be eaten right away, the recipe contains an additional step: “If you keep them anytime, boyle the pickle again & put it to them when cold.” (Eliza Smith also has a recipe for pickled pigeon which, when served, were eaten with vinegar and oil.)

“India pickle” was a popular pickle during the Georgian era. In Hannah Glasse’s cookbooks, the recipe for “Indian pickle” contains turmeric, garlic, mustard seed, “long pepper” (an Indian flowering vine which fruit is dried and used as a seasoning and is hotter than black pepper), and ginger mixed in vinegar in which two cabbages and two cauliflowers are pickled. In A Jane Austen Household Book, a similar combination of ingredients is used. This dish evolved to piccalilli which is still common.

Clearly a wide range of foods were consumed as a pickle. Eliza Smith, Hannah Glasse and others preserved recipes for pickled ham and tongue, nasturtium buds, quinces, asparagus, oysters and lobsters. Multiple ways to pickle walnuts mushroom and fruits were known. The spices and seasonings used evolved as availability and affordability increased. The term “pickle” had a much broader culinary meaning than most of us know today.


Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (Facsimile of first American edition published in 1805, reprinted1997 by Applewood Books, Bedford, MA).

Hickman, Peggy. A Jane Austen Household Book with Martha Lloyd’s recipes.

Smith, Eliza. The Compleat Housewife. (First published 1758, published 1994 by Studio Editions Ltd., London, England).

The Food Timeline.

British History Online. Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, by Nancy Cox and Karen Dannehl, 2007.  In Depth Info on Pickles.  “Pickle History.”


Lauren Gilbert, author of Heyerwood, A Novel, lives in Florida with her husband.  Visit her website to find out more.  Her second book is due out later this year.


  1. A few years back my husband and I went on a pickling adventure. We pickled pickles and we picked mixed vegetables ala Giardiniera and eggs which we did not like much. It was interesting but not truly cost effective although I still mix a batch of sauerkraut every few months. It is so much better and crispier than store bought kraut.

  2. I can remember when I was a kid, my mother would buy pickled pig's feet. It sounds revolting now, but in my pre-vegetarian days, at home we thought they were pretty good.

  3. I hate to think of pickled puffin!


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