In a Pickle…A Quintessentially English Affair

In a pickle” appears in The Tempest (Act 5, scene 1) Shakespeare; a related form appears in Antony and Cleopatra (Act 2, scene 5). Thomas Tusser (an English farmer and poet) had advised, in 1573, that the husbandman “Reap barley with sickle, that lies in ill pickle.”

Preserving food is as much an art form as it is a scientific theory that has been ingrained in our food heritage. The need to preserve food when it is in abundance by treating and handling it to stop or slow down spoilage and thus allow for longer storage, mankind has been experimenting with natural pickles as a way to preserve food for out-of-season use and for long journeys, especially by sea. Salt pork and salt beef were common staples for sailors before the days of steam engines.

Some food historians and writers suggest that the process of pickling can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. It is said that in 5th century B.C. the Babylonians and Egyptians pickled fish such as sturgeon, salmon, and catfish, as well as poultry and geese.

Pickling of cucumbers dates back to about 3000 years ago, and has its origins in the Indian sub-continent. India has a large variety of pickles (known as Achaar in Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi, which are mainly made from mango, lime, Indian gooseberry (Anwla), chilli, vegetables, ginger, garlic and lemon. These fruits/vegetables are generally mixed with other pickling ingredients such as salt, spices, and vegetable oils to mature. Any Punjabi will tell you that a stuffed paratha and fiery achaar (pickle) washed down by a ice-cold glass of buttermilk lassi is the ultimate ‘Desi Brunch’!

Closer to home medieval cooks used salt, vinegars, spices and sugar to preserve all kinds of foods, developing their skills and enhancing their knowledge overtime. These techniques are prevalent in today’s vast array of pickles and pickling products on the market.

Pickling food in vinegar is a great way to augment its taste, and is a marvelous way to celebrate the bounty of late summer British produce available. Over time traditional pickles, such as piccalilli have become the ideal accompaniment with cured meats and fish, pies, cheeses, or as part of a Ploughman’s lunch platter. Whilst developing a retro come nostalgic menu concept in Islington, my mentor handed me down a traditional recipe for piccalilli. I had never really been big into pickling foods myself, and intertwined with a hectic work schedule, I was reluctant to try it out at all, not to mention the onions and the sack full of walnuts he wanted me to pickle as well.

I’ve always been quite partial to a hearty Ploughman’s lunch, which tells a novel tale of our national and regional food traditions. Unfortunately, most Ploughman’s lunches on offer in pubs and restaurants these days are a sad pale imitation of the real ‘McCoy’ – Back in the day no self respecting ploughman would have touched a toasted ciabatta with olives, thin camembert slices and a limp garnish of seasonal salad. A traditional Ploughman’s lunch had to be robust and full of gusto, if it were to be a substantial lunch for a ploughman to work the fields with all day.

‘Ploughman’s Lunch’ as we understand it today is actually a term promoted by the trade organisations English Cheese and the Milk Marketing Board in the 1960’s as part of an advertising campaign to boost the amount of cheese being sold in pub lunches. I doubt the romantic notions of a hardworking handsome looking ploughman armed with a cheese knife, wooden board and Gingham table cloth enjoying a leisurely lunch under a tree in the meadows with the sun gleaming in his eyes was a regular occurrence…nice idea though.

The earliest reference of the word Ploughman’s dates back to is 1837, and in later references food writers and authors say ‘There’s a pub quite close to where I live where … all you need say is, ‘Ploughboy’s Lunch, Harry, please’. And in a matter of minutes and a shilling later a tray is handed across the counter to you on which is a good square hunk of bread, a lump of butter and a wedge of cheese, and pickled onions, along with your pint of beer.

There are no set rules or formulae as for what components go into making up a Ploughman’s lunch, but a few core items are essential to stay true to the testament of our ‘English icon’ – Culture24, part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
A traditional Ploughman’s lunch will usually include a huge chunk of strong local hard cheese, a handful of crisp pickled onions, a fresh tomato, fresh butter and a thumping great hunk of fresh bread. The meats and accompaniments may vary depending on seasonality and availability of produce, and which region you are in, but it would not be uncommon to find a slice of pate or pork pie, apples or pears, and an assortment of homemade pickles, chutneys and relishes.

With the sunny weather we’ve been having recently, I can’t think of anything better than a weekend away from the big smoke, in the country with a traditional Ploughman’s lunch, a bottomless jar of homemade piccalilli and a refreshing pint of local pale ale or cider. Apart from being a great way to enjoy a leisurely lunch on a glorious summer’s day, there is something quintessentially English about the whole affair.

I did make the piccalilli in the end, and found that it opened up a whole new world of pickling for me, and it wasn’t long before I pickled those onions as well. I found that making pickles can be very rewarding, and just tasted better and better as they mature over time. I never really did get round to doing those walnuts…which ended up with me getting in a right pickle!

Homemade Piccalilli

450g salt + 4.5 litres of water, bring to the boil

Add 3 medium cauliflowers broken into florets

1/2kg button onions in half

3 large cucumbers seeds removed cut into chunks

3 onions diced

1.5 litres of malt vinegar

275g castor sugar

2 cloves crushed garlic

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon of all spice

30g mustard powder

30g turmeric

15g ground ginger

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 Dessert spoons corn flour


  1. Put the cauliflowers and onions in a bowl and pour over the liquid and leave to go cold. Cover the cucumbers with just enough liquid to cover them.
  2. Put the sugar, vinegar, garlic, nutmeg and onion into a pan, bring to the boil and cook for 3 min.
  3. Mix the mustard powder, turmeric, cayenne and ginger together with a little water to form a paste and whisk in.
  4. Put 4 dessert spoons of corn flour into a bowl and mix to a paste with a little water and then whisk in to the correct thickness, add ½ first and boil when the consistency is correct add the vegetables and cook for 1 min and cool
  5. Ladle into warm, sterilised jars with non-metallic or vinegar-proof lids, making sure there are no air gaps, before sealing and labelling.
  6. Store in a cool, dark place. Allow the flavours to mature for at least 1 month and refrigerate after opening. Unopened it will keep for 6 months


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