In the early 1990s, I was living in High Wycombe, a sizeable market town in Buckinghamshire, England. I was working as a receptionist for a facilities management company, making just enough money to cover my rent on a 6-foot-by-6-foot room in a shared house, where I lived for half a year while trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.
The wages of a receptionist were far from luxurious. When I first started the job, I suffered through endless brown-bag lunches. Then my vivacious co-worker Gayle introduced me to the local sandwich shop, where I tried my first cheese-and-pickle bap.
To this Texas city girl, the only thing the word “pickle” conjured up was a jar full of Vlasic dill pickles. I had always been emphatically anti-pickle, but I had also learned that the best way to start learning about a new culture is to sample its food. So when Gayle bought me a cheese-and-pickle bap, I put on my best face and accepted gratefully. And I was glad I did!
First of all, English cheddar and mainstream cheddar from American grocery stores are two different entities. English cheddar is sharp and rich, with a big bold and creamy flavor, unlike mainstream American cheddar (which seemed to be either sharp–making your teeth squeak–or mild, with no flavor at all). The bap, it turned out, was a flavorful bread roll. But the pickle…. the pickle! It was some wild concoction that was sweet and spicy, tart and smooth, very complex. I couldn’t tell you what was in it, only that it was brown. And it was called Branston pickle.
Fast forward about 20 years. I can actually get Branston pickle in the specialty grocery store I visit (20 miles from my house). But the stuff costs about $5 for 8 ounces, and this stuff is so good, I couldn’t just have a little dab of it at a time. So, today, I devoted the afternoon to making my own.
I’ll share the recipe at the end, but here are a few photos of the process. Start by dicing the carrots and putting them in a pot. Get a big pot, because this makes a lot.
Dice a medium-sized rutabaga and some garlic cloves, and add to the pot.
Add dates (yes, dates.)
Chop up half a head of cauliflower and a couple of onions, and add to the mix.
Dice two apples, two unpeeled zucchini, and 15 sweet gherkins, then add to the pot.
Now comes the magic–the malt vinegar. Just one whiff of this miracle elixir will take you back to England, even if you’ve never been there.
Next, add a little bit of a bunch of flavors: brown sugar, salt, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, mustard seeds, ground allspice, and cayenne pepper. Stir, and admire the beauty.
Simmer this pot full of loveliness for a couple of hours, until the rutabaga is crisp-tender and the whole mixture becomes a brownish color. Your whole house will smell delicious.
Then spoon the pickle into clean, sterilized Mason jars.
Now comes the hard part–waiting three weeks for the flavors to mature. I tasted this straight out of the pan, and it’s delicious. I can only imagine how wonderful this will be in three weeks.
Now, to track down some good English cheddar to go with it…
Branston Pickle Recipe makes five 16-oz. pints
This is good served alongside cold cooked meats or with a good cheddar cheese.
9 oz. carrots, peeled, diced in 1/4″ cubes
1 medium rutabaga, peeled, diced in 1/4″ cubes
4 garlic cloves, peeled, minced
4 1/2 oz. dates, finely chopped
1/2 medium cauliflower, finely chopped
2 onions, peeled, finely chopped
2 apples, peeled, finely chopped
2 unpeeled zucchini, finely chopped
15 sweet gherkins, finely chopped
8 oz. dark brown sugar
1 tsp salt
2 oz. lemon juice
12 oz. malt vinegar
1 T. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. mustard seeds
2 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
3 dashes Kitchen Bouquet browning sauce (for coloring)
1. Combine all the ingredients except the coloring in an 8-quart pot and bring to the boil.
2. Reduce the heat and simmer until the rutabaga is cooked through but still firm (about 1½ to 2 hours).
3. Add the Kitchen Bouquet until the color is dark brown.
4. Spoon into warm sterilized jars and seal.
5. Leave for at least 3 weeks to let the flavors mature.