My Proper Piccalilli is the preserve I enjoy making the most. It’s a painstaking process, mind you. Eight different varieties of vegetable in there, ten if you count the garlic and the stem ginger. It’s a two-day process. Day One is the careful preparation of the vegetables. Some are peeled, some are not. Each different vegetable is cut to a different shape, little discs for the gherkin, batons for the cucumber, half roundels for the courgette, cauliflower snapped into tiny florets, and so on. Into a big bowl and brined overnight under rock salt crystals. Day Two sees much rinsing and drying and the preparation of the spiced vinegar. In go the vegetables, they are cooked for the merest two or three minutes, the spiced vinegar is thickened slightly, off the heat it comes and into its jars. The shapes and colours of the vegetables in the vivid yellow sauce look like a Matisse painting. The key ingredient is the turmeric which doesn’t add much to the flavour but a blast of strong yellow to the finished pickle.
It’s that yellow of the turmeric that has caused me some anguish. There are ‘Absolutely no Additives’ in my preserves, but turmeric is not sunlight-fast and fades quickly in the sun. I first noticed this when the Piccalilli was losing its colour as it sat in the sun at the little stall at our gate. I investigated and happened upon an interesting company called GNT, HQ in the Netherlands but with a UK division. They make food colouring entirely from plants and flowers. I rang them up and they sent me a sample of a wonderful natural yellow made from safflowers but sadly I would have had to buy an industrial quantity of it. So, now I keep the Piccalilli out of the sun. There is a sign at the gate ‘Please Ring the Bell for Piccalilli’. And people do.
Piccalilli is deservedly seeing a bit of a renaissance at the moment, it fell out of fashion in the 60’s, but is back as people pay more attention to what they eat – it’s full of nutritious crunchy vegetables, has no fat at all and hardly any sugar. No-one is quite sure how Piccalilli came to be but it is mentioned in a Mrs Raffald’s book of 1772, ‘ The Experienced English Housekeeper’. There’s a recipe in there for ‘Piccalillo or Indian Pickle’. It would have been on the menu in the days of the Raj no doubt. At that time of course, chutneys and pickles were used to mask the taste of over-the-hill meats and fish. Today we don’t have to worry about the freshness of our food. A good dollop of Piccalilli is the perfect match for a pork pie, it’s great with a thick slice of ham and I know someone who opens the fridge, grabs the Piccalilli and eats it straight from the jar with a spoon.
So, I am asking you to Ring the Bell for Piccalilli. And I will Bang the Drum.