When in a pickle: just add 90 days

There are few British culinary experiences more appalling than the so-called ploughman’s lunch.

This gut-churning nightmare is served in the length and breadth of the British Isles, and operates on the general principle of a landmine: undiscriminating, ­dangerous and universal in its hostility to civilians. What the innocent tourist gets when ­ordering such a pub meal is this: bad beer, vile cheese and the worst pickled onions known to the human race. Since the pickled onion is a noble invention, easy to make and a joy to eat, let me tell you how to avoid the horrors of a British industrial pickled onion and, in its place, produce a couple of jars of South Africa’s finest …

You will need:
2kg onions

• 500g salt

• 1,5 litres spiced vinegar
For the spiced vinegar you will need:
1,5 litres white vinegar

• 20ml whole cloves

• 250mm cinnamon bark

• 5 black peppercorns

• 5 white peppercorns

• 1 bay leaf (if you insist)

• 3 to 5 whole red chillies

Start with the onions which ideally should be perfectly formed, unblemished, small pickling onions. Place these, washed but unpeeled, in a bowl partially filled with 2,5 litres of water mixed with 250g salt. Let the unpeeled onions soak in the saltwater overnight.

The next morning take the onions out of the saltwater and peel them. Mix up a fresh bowl of saltwater to the same specifications as the first and soak the now peeled onions for 24 hours. While you wait, you could service the Series II short wheelbase Landy you’re restoring, or work on your novel. You choose.

Time marches on. It is now Day Three, and you have a bowl full of salty, peeled onions. Now to create the pickling medium – the hot spiced vinegar. Firstly, decide on the vinegar. Some pickling traditions use brown, others white. I suggest the white, since it will take up the colours of the spices and so produce a good-looking bottle of pickles.

Pour the 1,5 litres of vinegar into a stainless steel saucepan. Add the whole chillies, the 10 whole peppercorns, the cinnamon and the cloves, then bring the vinegar and spices to the boil. The bay leaf is optional, because in my view bay leaves are an ongoing puzzle that add little or nothing to a recipe. Sustain the boiling for a minute or two, then decant the entire contents of the saucepan into a large bowl, cover, and let it stand for a couple of hours at room temperature.

While this is going on, prepare the pickling bottles. It is best to buy new bottles for this, considering the amount of effort you have already expended. Boil the vinegar-proof lids and bottles in a saucepan to eliminate unwanted microorganisms which may contaminate the pickles. Strain the spiced vinegar to remove the solids. Loosely pack the onions into the bottles and then top up with the spiced vinegar, taking care to cover the onions completely. Fit the vinegar-proof lids and store your home-made produce for 90 days, after which it is ready to eat. – David Basckin