Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Pickle Obsession Unearthed

Please let this be the one

It's very difficult to find nice pickles,
the nice sour kind, without any sugar or ones that aren't soaked in pure vinegar where I live. For some reason, all the little prickly cornichons here, the kind that are normally served with charcuterie platters, are steeped in sugar and so sour you just get an icky sugar laden sour taste when you eat them. They're not something to eat, they're something to slice a shaving from and combine with a bite of pâté. The whole idea of taking one, biting into it, and enjoying its complex and delicious combination of textures and flavors is lost here in France. As a consequence of the pickle condition here in Lyon, I crawl through back aisles of ethnic shops high and low for real pickles, the kind I love. Once I believe I have hit paydirt, the supply chain is usually broken and they stop carrying them. It's my luck. It's really hard to find the good kind around here.

So of course when David Lebovitz, a resident of Paris, food writer extraordinaire, did a batch of Arthur Schwartz's Home Made Kosher Dills at home and told us how easy it was the other day (recipe is on David's Site), I was instantly charmed. He did these pickles, and said: "...All that was missing was a pile of hot corned beef jammed between two spices of corn rye with some mustard and a Dr. Brown's black cherry soda." this made me want to immediately prepare a batch. I believe this may be the pickle I am looking for. I'm hoping, anyway. I divided the recipe he provided and did one jar. We'll see the final result soon. Thank you David!

While I have a few days to dream... I hope it is the kind of pickle I had that time in the former USSR. Loic took me to the city formerly known as Leningrad, St. Petersburg, Russia. I bumbled my way through an irretracable maze of subways and back streets to a market. Lo and behold, there were pickles stacked like mountains. Curious about Russian pickles, I bought one, tasted it, and my mind started turning circles. I just had to find myself a place to sit and meditate for a moment to get a grip on what I had just tasted. The woman with the honeycombs just stared when I sat next to her and threw my head back. It was the most excellent pickle I had ever had in my whole life.

This is the lady in St. Petersburg Russia and her pickles.
A piece of my soul was lost when I had to leave the pickles behind in Russia.

I immediately purchased some of each kind that were offered, and lugged a large dripping sack of them back to the place where we were staying. I stuffed pickles into my mouth one after the other like a pickle freak. The lady we were staying with told me to watch out, I risked becoming ill. She insisted that I keep them in her refrigerator. I guess they must have had a scare with some spoiled pickles in St. Petersburg but that didn't stop me from consuming them in large quantities. One night I even remember sneaking into the kitchen where she slept, all for the love of these pickles.

It was very very late, It must have been the wee hours of the morning. I slinked from our room through a first hallway where the boy, her son, was curled up in a sleigh bed next to his beloved computer, and then down another long hallway and around a corner past her husband, snorting and making puttering noises in a recliner in front of a fuzzy television screen. I opened the creaky door to the kitchen where a dim light from the tail end of the white night was filtering through lace curtains and barely lit the room. The kitchen was gray but my mind was dazzled with pickle green, because all I could think of were the pickles as they would be glowing by the refrigerator light. I made my way to the refrigerator and opened the door to get a pickle from my stash in the vegetable drawer. It made a clonking sound and she woke up. She gave me a pretty hard glare there in the almost dark kitchen and asked me what I was doing there. I said "to get... a pickle..." She huffed and turned her back to me and I snatched one of the pickled greens and scurried off into the night, nibbling and stuffing it systematically into my mouth as I went back to the bed.

Loic did not understand my love of these pickles. I really can't explain it myself except that there was a memory lodged deep in my subconscious, somewhere this flavor had wedged itself into the animal part of my brain and it clutched me like a vice. Soon the pickles were gone but that did not stop me from thinking about them.

One clue to the path to the pickles, dredged from the archive, a path never to be retraced again

If you have ever been lost in a Russian subway, you'll know how I felt when I tried to find my way back to that market. She resisted when I told her I planned to go back and get more of those pickles before we left Russia and take them home. I tried to get her son to take me back to the market, but he minded his mother. She had had enough of my obsession with the pickles already, they were keeping her up at night. She finally pleaded with me not to try and cross the border with pickles, as if they were illegal to import into France. I don't know, we were in a rush, I had all these other things on my list, and the seemingly illegal plan of packing up a big sack of pickles to carry home was cast aside. But it haunts me to this day. I must have those pickles again.


Blogger Heaven on Earth said...

I believe there are two kinds of people in the world: pickle people and non pickle people. I think in the US that Klaussen's pickles are about the closest thing to pickle perfection.

3:47 PM, May 19, 2008  
Blogger glamah16 said...

I thougt I was a pickle freak. Your landlady sounded mean.I hate sweet pickles as well. I would love to be able to make my own.

9:51 PM, May 19, 2008  
Anonymous India J said...

I absolutely love your blog, please may I write a post and link your blog to mine?
Thanks in advance - although I'll wait for your response before going ahead (or not!) :)

10:07 PM, May 19, 2008  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thanks for coming by! Heaven, I think you might be on to something there. Glamah, thanks for coming by and your kind support! She wasn't mean, really. She was really interesting as a person, her life was so complex! India, but of course you may put a link on your blog! Thank you!

11:14 PM, May 19, 2008  
Blogger Kevin said...

Making your own pickles sounds like fun! I have a hard time finding good pickles as well.

11:26 PM, May 19, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You need the freshest/crispiest vegetables to start. (preferably just picked from your own garden), then you need a youthful wine vinegar.
They provided me with the best pickles I've ever had.

1:18 AM, May 20, 2008  
Blogger Tace said...

My Mom always made the best pickles (with my assistance of course)! We grew the dill, we grew the garlic and we grew the cucumbers. We weren't farmers by any means but the extra work that went in to growing the ingredients for those pickles was soooooo worrrtthhh it. No other pickle I ever had was as good as those ones we made back then. We let them mature in their jars and around Christmas time, when the snow was beginning to look less pretty and more confining we'd crack a jar open......Some of us..(ok it was me) would even slurp some of the pickle juice because it was that good. Thanks for stirring up my own pickle memories.

5:01 AM, May 20, 2008  
Blogger James said...

I love pickles too! Great lesson on deboning a duck neck.

7:17 AM, May 20, 2008  
Blogger Kitt said...

What a wonderful narrative. Even if I didn't like pickles, I would be craving one now.

And it's funny, one of the best pickles I ever had was bought from a woman on the train platform in some Nowheresburg between Moscow and Lake Baikal. I only bought one, and by the time I discovered how good it was, the train was pulling away. Too late to buy more.

8:10 AM, May 20, 2008  
Blogger yardstickandpencil said...

Oh so true, so true. I lived in St. Pete for 2 years and still can't get those pickled garlic tops and bulbs out of my mind, not to mention the crisp pickled slaw they make. Russian know their pickles. Like retsina in Greece, you'll never understand vodka unless you have it with its natural accompaniment --pickles, black bread and smoked fish! Thanks for the funny memory and the cavernous view!

2:20 PM, May 20, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Russian pickles and overprotective Babushka types, now there's a walk down memory lane!

By the way, I think I know which market you mean (and if it's not that exact market, then I'd still recommend it) - the one by Dosteovskovo/Vladimirskaya metro?

P.S. Huge fan of the site - currently living in Paris and often use your ideas as inspiration for my own cooking - indeed I cooked a variation on your latest artichoke recipe on Friday and it was simply wonderful. Thank you!

4:35 PM, May 20, 2008  
Blogger antosia said...

I think you find sour pickle in the Polish shop if it any in your place. They are very popular in Poland. We prepare a cucumber soup using the pickle :))

3:43 PM, May 21, 2008  

wonderful little story you pickled up for us, love your site

6:23 PM, May 21, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

....And I luurve the photo. Everything looks so succulent yet so crunchy, and what a look you captured on Madame.


2:14 AM, May 22, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a curious aside I got this info from an article on the Kuznechny market in St Petersberg. -- "Spicy pickled cucumbers, whole garlic and bundles of wild garlic shoots. The vegetables are steeped in rassol, salted vinegar spiked with hot peppers, horseradish root, dill, black currant leaves and other ingredients. Leftover rassol, or “pickle water,” is the base for a variety of hearty soups, one of which is known as rassolnik, a common cure for vodka hangovers."

2:33 AM, May 22, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yikes, vinegar in pickles! (Some of the comments above). No way :) Ferment them in brine on a sunny windowsill for a week or so.

6:26 AM, December 06, 2008  
Blogger L Vanel said...


11:04 AM, December 12, 2008  

Post a Comment

<< Home