Over the last several years, Pete and I have gradually converted our back garden into what we refer to as our home lottie (but which should, more accurately, be called a kitchen garden). Each year we’ve added a few more vegetables and fruits to the mix.
This year, for the first time, we're growing gherkins.
It’s a confusing word, is gherkin.
The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is thought to have originated in foothills of Himalayas, possibly from wild cucumbers (Cucumis hardwickii). Certainly, it's been cultivated in India for more than 3000 years and also known in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and China. of course, it's now found worldwide.
There is also the West Indian gherkin (Cucumis anguria), a related but different species.
But usually when we talk about gherkins in Europe, we’re not talking about Cucumis anguria but about a set of cultivars of Cucumis sativus (cucumber).
To make it more confusing still, as it has long been common to preserve gherkin cultivars by pickling them in vinegar, the word gherkin has become synonymous with any type of pickled cucumber – gherkin cultivar or not.
I’ve even had some people insist that there’s no such thing as a gherkin, that it’s just a term for pickled cucumbers!
So, what is a cultivar? A cultivar is simply a variety of a plant that, over time, has been deliberately selected for specific desirable characteristics – for example, there are several thousand varieties of tomatoes of all colours, shapes and sizes and varying hugely in taste, disease resistance, yield.
Cucumbers come in many shapes and sizes too, from spherical yellow ones to long, slender ones with thick dark green skins. Some are juicy and full of seeds, others are virtually seedless. Some have bumpy, ridged skins, others are smoothly lustrous. Some taste quite bitter whilst others have a mild, almost sweet flavour, similar to that of melons, which are also part of the Cucurbitaceae family (as are gourds, marrows, squashes and pumpkins).
The gherkins we are growing are a cultivar of cucumber (Cucumis sativus) called 'Diamant' F1 Hybrid.
Gherkins are well suited for pickling.
And the first four picked just had to be pickled, didn't they? Oh, yes!
But which recipe to use? There are so many variations, from sharp to sweet, with dill or without, nothing but gherkin or with some onion and garlic thrown in, not to mention the choice of spices…
The majority of the recipes I found use a ready-bought pickling spice but I decided to make my own.
I simply combined a few whole spices, crushed them a little to let the flavours escape more readily, popped them into one of those make-your-own-teabags pouches before steeping them in malt vinegar. (Malt vinegar because I have lots left over from when I made lemon pickle).
The gherkins I sliced into halves or quarters and salted overnight in the fridge, before pouring off the resulting liquid, washing them gently and patting them dry.
Into my pickling vinegar I dissolved sugar (to taste) before pouring it into my (sterilised) jar full of gherkins (and a couple of garlic cloves).
I made these on the 18 June and want to leave them at least a couple of months before I crack open the jar.
I made a second batch on the 11 July. This time, instead of salting the gherkins on a plate, I poured lightly salted boiling water over them in a bowl, let it cool down and then put it into the fridge overnight. I also added a higher volume of sugar to the vinegar (which I'd steeped with the same pickling spice teabag for several hours). The cucumber pieces were put into hot sterilised jars and the hot vinegar poured over.
I'll let you know how they turn out!
Recipe for Pickling Spice Mix
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon powdered allspice
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds (measure after removing from pods)
1-2 bay leaves
1-2 small pieces cassia bark
- Crush whole spices, leaves and bark and combine with the ground spices.
Addendum: We opened the jars of gherkins in May/June 2011. Both worked well, but I preferred the texture and higher sugar content of the second batch. I shall be making these again if we get a decent yield of cucumbers in coming months!