A culinary commonality, pickling and fermenting unite the traditions of East and West, Latin America and Northern Europe, greasy spoons and Michelin-garlanded restaurants. Consider the geographic reach of dishes as diverse as Persian torshi, Korean kimchi, French choucroute, British piccalilli and Scandinavian pickled herring.
With ancient provenance, pickling and fermenting developed out of necessity to preserve foods in times of plenty for times of lack. But their intense flavours have elevated them above mere practicality and economy. And better still; fermenting and pickling are natural digestifs, heralded for all sorts of health benefits from clearing the skin to souping-up the immune system.
While pickled flavours deliver a walloping punch, fermenting processes are generally less easily discerned, though used in the making of European essentials such as bread and wine. Fermenting essentially fosters the development of bacteria present in foods to preserve rather than perish. Pickling by contrast quickly stalls the spread of bacteria with the aid of vinegar – leaving a sharp tang. While ‘fermentation pickling’ combines the two, producing slowly-developed, complex flavours.
Fermented black radish at Raw Duck, inspired by Japanese tradition
The variety of foods that can be soused, pickled and fermented really goes on: meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, fish, even nuts. In Thailand, mango, pineapple and jackfruit are chilli-pickled, in Vietnam, fermented shrimp paste is the potent basis of the national cuisine, and in China, tofu is fermented until turning a crimson colour, and served at breakfast.
The king of pickles: Korean kimchi prepared by Raw Duck with cauliflower stalks
Here in London a panoply of pickling and fermenting tastes are to be found amongst the Capital’s diverse communities. At Wembley Gujarati restaurant VB & Sons’ you can load up at the “pickle cart”, which holds buckets of freshly made pickles sold by weight. And handmade pickles are sold by-the-jar at Southall-based St John & Dolly Smith (whose mean scotch-bonnet condiment should be consumed in moderation), while Newton and Pott offer a refreshing gin-pickled cucumber alternative.
A pickling and fermenting trip around the world: Raw Duck’s assortment of sauerkraut, turmeric daikon, black radish and kimchi
Inspired by culinary traditions and seasonings from across the world (such as Szechuan peppercorns, mace, coriander, mustard seeds, cobra saffron, soapnuts, and mango-ginger), London chefs are innovating. Whether it’s dill pickles with pulled pork at Meat Liquor and Pitt Cue, Lyle’s offering of ox heart, pickled walnuts and brussels tops or The Typing Room’s yeasted cauliflower, raisins, capers and mint.
As a trend, pickling and fermenting is exceptionally grounded, having emerged from the make-do-and-mend attitude of the recession: a frugal do-it-yourself urge to preserve, conserve and make things last. Both pickling and fermenting give a new lease of life to vegetable discards and offshoots, and give seasonal produce staying power.
The trend has also been occasioned by a deepening interest in Asian food traditions, demonstrated by chefs, such as Bill Granger and his love affair with kimchi – the Korean staple of highly spiced pickled vegetables. The prevalence of nose-to-tail eating has also played its part, as the palate-cleansing zing of pickled vegetables act as the perfect foil for rich and fatty organ meats. Dishes like the pig’s head and black-pudding terrine served at Odette’s might be a little intense without a refreshing pickled something on the side.
Earthenware crocks for fermenting kombucha and drinking vinegars at Raw Duck
Fermenting is set to become big in 2015, with London seeing drinking vinegars, kombucha and pickle-juice cocktails popping-up on menus across the city.
Devised in a Brooklyn bar in 2013, the pickleback cocktail is now served at London’s Electric Diner and Pitt Cue, and takes its name from the brine saved from pickled cucumber, that is then added to a shot of bourbon for a salty kick. While London drinks company Funkin has jumped ahead of the trend with its Funkin Pickle Juice, the first pickle juice specifically designed for cocktail-use.
Raw Duck gives pickling and fermenting pride of place on its food and drinks menu
Non-alcoholic alternatives come in the way of kombucha, the Japanese fermented green-tea drink, lauded for its health properties, and drinking vinegars, commonly referred to as ‘shrubs’.
Raw Duck’s food philosophy focuses on raw and healthy foods, as well as biodynamic and natural wines
Hackney restaurant Raw Duck, sister to Duck Soup in Soho, has a bright array of drinking vinegars, such as warm apple with heather honey and seasonal choices listed daily on its board. Busily fermenting in the restaurant’s bottles are combinations of seasonal quince, black plum, carrot and beetroot, peach and ginger and apricot and ginger.
Raw Duck began fermenting as an extension of its health-aware, raw-food philosophy. Inspired from a field-trip to Japan, their fermented black radish and turmeric daikon dishes have light subtle flavours – more nuanced than the fermenting initiate might expect.
A morning digestif: fresh apple drinking vinegar prepared with heather honey at Raw Duck
True to their universal nature, pickling and fermenting connect several trends: seasonality, waste trimming, health consciousness, sugar evasion, and East-West mash-ups. It’s exciting to see the restoration of age-old techniques that inspire such experimentation. What’s next? Watch this space.