There was a bit of a pong in the kitchen when I came down this morning. That’s my bread and butter pickle ingredients being brined. Despite the smell when you slake cucumbers and onions with salt to leach out the watery juices, it’s my favourite pickle and the easiest to make.
People look at me blankly when I mention it but any American will have no problem knowing what it is. They go for it in a big way, I’m told, having pickling or canning (bottling) parties where groups of women get together to make a batch for the winter from surplus cucumbers.
Bread and butter is a sweet-sour pickle of thinly sliced cucumbers and onions in sweetened vinegar spiced with what you will, in my case dill (or celery) and mustard seeds and a little ginger. It is crunchy and so refreshing. Think of those sliced onions in jars of soused herrings and you’ll get a feeling for the taste.
No one knows how this little dish got its name. Was it because it was a ‘bread and butter’ staple, a poverty food, served in bread and butter as a sandwich? The Americans seem to think so, citing its popularity during the Great Depression in the Thirties.
The story goes it was popularised by a couple called Omar and Cora Fanning, cucumber farmers in Illnois, who turned otherwise unsellable cucumbers into pickle. They were certainly going by 1923, six years before the Depression started, but that doesn’t spoil the theory.
I had always assumed this was a dish taken by the British (or German and Scandinavian) settlers to America and subsequently forgotten by the English but I have no evidence one way or the other. If used as a sandwich filling it is only one step removed from that good old English cucumber sandwich served with afternoon tea.
That doyenne of food writers Dorothy Hartley failed to mention this pickle on her travels round England, nor does it appear in Traditional Foods in Britain (Prospect Books 2004), that compendium of Anglo Saxon cookery compiled at the behest of the European Union. I don’t ever recall seeing it on the shelves in delis and supermarkets.
But why buy it when you can make your own? First choose your cukes carefully. I find the traditional English foot long or more cucumbers are far too watery so try and look out for the smaller varieties on sale in continental supermarkets. I bought half a dozen from the Ozmen grocery shop on London Road, Sheffield. The variety and range of the fruit and vegetables here puts Anglo stores to shame: three or four different kinds of mangoes and aubergines, a big display of leafy vegetables and herbs and so much more. That included the white onions I also bought from there as they are sweeter.
My recipe is only slightly reworked from the one published by Derbyshire Life in 2012.
6 small cucumbers
2 middling white onions
500ml of distilled white vinegar*
1 tbsp dill or celery seed
2 tbsp mustard seeds**
2-3 slices fresh ginger
Thinly slice the vegetables (I used a mandolin) into a colander, salting the layers as you go. Cover, leave overnight and hold your nose
Next day, drain off and discard water (I had 200ml), rinse to remove the salt and drain well. Don’t be in a hurry to do this: you’ll be surprised how much water is retained. I let mine drain overnight.
Heat the vinegar gently to dissolve the sugar (taste for desired sweetness) and add the spices, bring to a boil, simmer for a few minutes then allow to cool slightly.
Remove ginger, add the cucumber and onions to the warm vinegar so all the spices are mixed in. Put a spoonful of the spiced vinegar into the bottom of each sterilised jar to avoid air pockets then spoon in the vegetables and pour over the warm vinegar. The spices will have plenty of time in the jars to infuse. I filled five medium sized jars with pickle. Seal, label and store.
Flavour develops in a couple of weeks but if you don’t have enough left to fill a jar keep it in a bowl n the fridge and eat it over the next few days. I’m still eating last year’s pickle. It’s great as a relish or chopped up and added to homemade fishcakes.
I have a dim childhood memory of my parents serving me up a brew of sliced onions in sweetened vinegar when I was ill so perhaps that’s why I like it so much.
*Don’t pick a murky vinegar, you want to see the lovely green and white slices. Distilled is much cheaper than wine or cider vinegar
** I used black mustard seeds then ran out and added yellow