I remember my surprise when I first saw rhubarb at the farmers market on a Saturday in May of three years ago. It was the kind that grows outdoors and has big, bright green leaves and dark magenta stalks tinged with green and maroon. It was a beautiful thing to see, and I was excited to start cooking from it – not necessarily because the flavour excited me, but rather for the novelty it held. That same day, I made my first rhubarb crumble. Plain, immediate, uncomplicated and fulfilling. Followed by a rhubarb mess, and finally, a pot of stewed rhubarb and used to top yoghurt, muesli and porridge.
With the classics all pretty much tried and tested multiple times, I recently started experimenting more with rhubarb preserves. I made a pretty nice jam, inspired by a pot given to me by my English aunt, who now lives in Italy, upon one of her visit to the homeland. I also made a syrup to be mixed into cocktails, particularly in gin tonics. It never occurred to me, however, that pickled rhubarb was a thing, which is a shame because it is so very good.
The idea came via a multiple series of lucky events and encounters. The first, a breakfast chat with the talented cook, soon-to-be cookbook author and all-around fantastic woman who is Olia Hercules, who swore by an amazing Ukrainian-style rhubarb pickle ‘with lots of dill, of course, which can then be served with mackerel on brioche. And a casual chat at work with one of my colleagues, Paddy, who happened to have worked with Jeremy Lee and to know of his famous pickled rhubarb…served with grilled mackerel. This colleague also happens to be Anna Tobias’ partner, who cooks rhubarb brilliantly at Rochelle Canteen, and I am sure knows how to make a mean pickle with it.
Jane Grigson didn’t come very useful this time around. In her otherwise brilliant The Fruit Book, rhubarb has a marginal role: she made it pretty clear that it wasn’t really her thing. She then gives a really peculiar suggestion to poach it in the deep fryer. Now, you didn’t think about it, did you? Maybe this is why my poached rhubarb often turns to mush – or shall I rather say compote? Maybe it’s because I get too distracted too easily, but then again I also don’t have any counter space for a deep fryer. Anyway, no trace of rhubarb pickles there, so I turned elsewhere for inspiration.
Eventually, I settled on the idea of a quick pickle, because I am lazy and keen on fast rewards. The base is formed by cider vinegar combined with just the right amount of sugar to make a sweet pickling liquid to milder the tart flavour of rhubarb. Spices are added as an embellishment to impart secondary aromatic undertones to the pickles, without stealing the scene from the hero. Many recipes call for sweet spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cloves. I preferred to include something more savoury: ginger – a classic, always a perfect partner to rhubarb – bay leaf, peppercorns, chilli, and only a hint of cloves. All the ingredients are combined into jars, and then the hot vinegar, water and sugar mixture is poured on top to cover the pieces of rhubarb. Jars are quickly sealed and then allowed to rest for 48 hours before opening. This resting time can be shortened – you can theoretically eat them as soon as they have cooled and spent a couple of hours in the fridge. However, a slightly longer resting time allows the liquid to penetrate the rhubarb, making it more tender whilst preserving its crisp bite.
These pickles work wonders with oily fish like mackerel or sardines, either smoked or grilled, as their acidity will cut through the fat and create a nice contrast of textures. Some say they are also good with hard cheese such as a good farmhouse cheddar or even a Gruyere. I am keen to try this pairing next, or hear your thoughts if you give it a try.
Line two sterilised pint jars with lids. Rinse the rhubarb stalks, scrubbing any residual soil, and trim the leaves and brown ends. Cut into 2-cm long pieces and pack them into the two jars. Divide the rest of the spices between the two jars, then set aside.
In a small saucepan, combine the cider vinegar, water, sugar and salt and bring to a boil. Whisk often to help dissolve the sugar and salt. As soon as the pickling liquid is boiling and the sugar and salt are dissolved, pour it into the jars until the liquid covers the rhubarb pieces. Close immediately with the sterilised lids. Allow to cool before storing in the refrigerator.
Let the rhubarb pickles cure for at least 48 hours before eating, then enjoy within two weeks from opening.