A history of pickling

And now to turn to something I love and explore the wonderful history of pickling. Pickled onions, pickled cucumbers, pickled eggs – you name it, I love it. And like many British favourites, it derives from the need to preserve food in days before refrigeration and for long voyages.

Pickles seem to have begun in India 4000 years ago with pickled cucumbers (and in the USA, the term ‘pickle’ refers only to cucumbers). As with anything that old, it is impossible to know much detail about how pickling was invented. It seems likely that it originated in many areas of the world as a result of attempts to preserve vegetables. It probably coincided with the development of longer-lasting foods such as salt-persevered and dried meats, smoked fish, alcohol and or course cheese. The term ‘pickle’ comes from the Dutch or Low German ‘pekel’ meaning brine or piquant.


The health benefits of pickling have long been known and it is reported that men including Aristotle, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Napoleon praised pickling. We now know why they are so nutritious. Brine-based pickles contain probiotic microbes, developed through fermentation and B vitamins produced by bacteria.

Pickles foods became a staple in English cuisine throughout the early modern period, with Elizabeth I reportedly liking them and William Shakespeare mentioning them in his plays. England’s seafaring culture encouraged the development of many preserved foods and left us with unusual ideas such as pickled oysters and hardtack biscuits and well-loved classics such as corned beef and clotted cream.

Shakespeare popularised the figurative phrase ‘in a pickle’ to describe somebody in a difficult situation.

I have been in such a pickle since I
saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of
my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in particular, vegetables came to be considered unfit for upper class circles; they were seen as something for the poor, while meat was for the rich. This unhealthy idea may have set back the development of pickled vegetables in this period, however other preservation methods for meat and fruit flourished, particularly with the introduction of sugar from the new world.  The falling price of sugar created foods such as marzipan, candied fruit and hippocrass, a very sweet  spiced wine.


Vegetables made their way back into public affection with the help of John Evelyn (mentioned before in a previous post), who published Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets in 1699. The book contained many recipes for pickled vegetables including this for pickled cucumbers.

Cucumbers. Take the Gorkems, or ſmaller Cucumbers; put them into Rape-Vinegar, and boyl, and cover them ſo cloſe, as none of the Vapour may iſſue forth; and alſo let them ſtand till the next day: Then boil them in freſh White-Wine Vinegar, with large Mace, Nutmeg, Ginger, white Pepper, and a little Salt, (according to diſcretion) ſtraining the former Liquor from the Cucumbers; and ſo place them in a Jarr, or wide mouthed Glaſs, laying a litle Dill and Fennel between each Rank; and covering all with the freſh ſcalding-hot Pickle, keep all cloſe, and repeat it daily, till you find them ſufficiently green.

Or pickled cauliflower.

Collyflowers. Boil them till they fall in Pieces: Then with ſome of the Stalk, and worſt of the Flower, boil it in a part of the Liquor till pretty ſtrong: Then being taken off, ſtrain it; and when ſettled, clear it from the Bottom. Then with Dill, Groſs Pepper, a pretty Quantity of Salt, when cold, add as much Vinegar as will make it ſharp, and pour all upon the Collyflower; and ſo as to keep them from touching one another; which is prevented by putting Paper cloſe to them.

Pickles were taken to the new world by Christopher Columbus, who grew and pickled cucumbers on Haiti. By the 17th century, pickles were being produced in Virginia and New York by Dutch settlers. According to the New York Food Museum, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.

Pickled foods became very common in British cuisine in the nineteenth century and to this day, pickled eggs and pickled onions are associated with pubs and fish and chip shops. The term also refers to other condiments such as Piccalilli, chutneys and most of all Branston Pickle, which was invented in 1922 in Branston, Burton upon Trent, and is primarily used in a Ploughman’s Lunch and in cheese and pickle sandwiches!


4 thoughts on “A history of pickling”

  1. Pingback: 13 Food And Drink To Cure Hangovers – HypeQuiva

  2. is Branston the only company making Old English Pub Picked Onions. I remember in the 1960 – 1970’s eating reddish picked onions with the name (I think so) Old English Pub Picked nions. Have you ever heard of

  3. Pingback: Pickles and Pickling – Syuzan Hovhannisyan Educomplex "Mkhitar Sebastatsi"

  4. Pingback: 10 zaskakujących właściwości zalewy po ogórkach konserwowych. Już nigdy jej nie wylejesz! | Popularne.pl

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