'Is there, by chance, any of Mrs Glover's excellent piccalilli?'
He smeared the piccalilli on to buttered bread and topped it with a thick slice of fatty ham.
'It's Mrs Glover,' she said, as if reading his mind.
'So it is. She of the excellent pickles.'
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
I looked at my bank account two months before Christmas in 2010, and wondered how on earth I was going to afford to get through the season that year. I love buying gifts, and wrapping them (in brown paper with string) while watching The Sound of Music, but I had just started a new job, and hadn't been paid in a couple of months. I was new here, and couldn't bear the thought of arriving to Christmas events empty handed. Thankfully, I quickly realised that while I may have been cash poor, I was time rich - I didn't have £100 to splash about on Oxford St, but I did have a weekend, a saucepan and £10 to stock up on Ridley Road Market.
It was the beginning of what became a yearly ritual: buying bowls of fruit or vegetables for a pound, preserving them in sugar and vinegar, and lining my hall cupboard with homemade gifts. I played with recipes for jams, marmalades, chutneys, pickles, cordials and spice mixes, adding more to my list of favourites each year. I started hoarding nice jars and bottles in January every year, hidden away in cardboard boxes under my bed. I remained on the hunt for new recipes and ideas, and often started my batch cooking as early as September. I'm no longer in that same flat, with that same box of jars, but my mind, now that September is approaching, has turned to preserving - and attempting to capture the summer while it is still here on the greengrocer's shelves.
I have rarely found a pickle or chutney I don't like, but I do have a special soft spot for piccalilli. It combines lots of things I really love: mustardy heat, Indian spicing and still-crunchy vegetables. To retain their bite, the vegetables are chopped into relatively large chunks, and only cooked for a brief time. Though it is perfect with a ploughman's lunch or a raised pie, eaten outdoors in the height of summer, it also works a treat on a winter cheese board, or (even better) a Christmas leftovers sandwich.
When I came across it in Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (early on, and then over and over again, as we continue to return to the night that Ursula is born), I wanted to be there, eating it with a thick slice of ham in January. Ideally, if you want to give jars of this away at Christmas, you should make it in late September, and leave the flavours to mingle for three months. Of course, you can eat it straight away, if you fancy; if you can't wait until winter, I'd completely understand.
Makes enough to fill three 400g jars
15 minutes + overnight rest + 30 minutes
200g shallots (peeled weight)
250g cauliflower (florets weight)
150g cucumber (deseeded weight)
100g green beans (topped and tailed)
150g carrots (peeled weight)
100g rock salt
500ml cider vinegar
1tbsp ground turmeric
2tsp ground ginger
1tbsp ground coriander
1tbsp ground cumin
1tsp Colman's mustard powder
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
2tbsp mustard seeds
150g granulated sugar
Chopping board and knife
Mixing bowl (stainless steel or glass is best - some metal bowls react with the acid, which can leave you with a metallic taste)
Three sterilised jars
1. First, prepare the vegetables. They should all be roughly the same size - about a centimetre squared. Slice the peeled shallots into four or so pieces, slice the beans, chop the cauliflower florets off the stalks, slice the cucumber and carrot into even lengths, and then dice.
2. Put the vegetables into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the salt on top, and toss through. Cover with a tea towel and leave in a cool place overnight.
3. Transfer the vegetables into the sieve and rinse very well under cold running water for five minutes to get rid of the salt. Pour the vinegar and spices into the saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Tip in the rinsed vegetables, and simmer for ten minutes. Piccalilli is not chutney; it should still have a bite to it, so don't cook the vegetables for too long.
4. Scoop the vegetables out of the vinegar using the slotted spoon. and transfer them back to the mixing bowl. Leave the vinegar and spices in the saucepan. Pour the sugar into the vinegar and stir until dissolved.
5. Weigh the cornflour into the small bowl, and pour a couple of tablespoons of the vinegar in. Whisk until you have a smooth paste. Pour the paste into the simmering pot of vinegar, and whisk through. The mixture will thicken. Pour this over the vegetables, and stir it through.
6. Spoon the piccalilli into sterilised jars. Ideally, you should leave the jars for 1-3 months for the flavours to develop but, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I have cracked into one of my jars already.