Seren on Saturday: In a Medieval Style Pickle

Preserving food by means of pickling is an ancient tradition and by the Middle Ages it was a well-established practice with medieval households being keenly aware of the need to preserve seasonal provisions in order to guard against the long and harsh winters, famine and warfare.

The mention of pickles now conjures up modern ideas of pickled onions or gherkins preserved in their jars of spiced vinegar, however, vegetables and meats would often be pickled in honey, sugar syrups or more commonly in a simple salt water solution. Pretty much anything and everything would be preserved in every way possible.

Whilst immersing fresh vegetables and other foods in a liquid solution of salt brine was a fairly common practice in medieval Europe the term “pickle” didn’t come into use in England until the late Middle Ages. The English word ‘pickle’ derives from the Middle English pikel, which was first recorded around 1400 and means ‘a spicy sauce or gravy served with meat or fowl’. This is different yet linked to the Middle Dutch word, pekel, meaning a solution, such as spiced brine, for preserving and flavouring food.


In my opinion no cheeseboard is complete without a healthy selection of pickles and a ploughman’s lunch is simply not worthy of its name without a good crunchy pickled onion. Being somewhat of a pickle enthusiast puts me amongst notable company, for prominent pickle-lovers in history include: Emperors Julius Caesar and Tiberius, King John and Queen Elizabeth I, Samuel Pepys and Napoleon.  It is interesting to note how pickles are now considered an accompaniment to a meal whereas looking back through history to times when winters were long and grim affairs in which the luxury of fresh produce was a rarity if at all; the winter diet mainly consisted of pickled food in one form or another. Pickled fish, vegetables and fruits as well as salted and smoked meats were things that would be made with pride, dedication and skill in the household kitchen. The industrious and ingenious housewife would make her preserves, brew beer, cider, mead, wine and put down her pickles. Pickles and preserves were laid down with care to take care of future needs. This was a time when a household was a self-contained, self-sufficient unit.

Larders and stillrooms were full of tasty preserved food and there was always a basis of a meal tucked away in these wondrous rooms. With the rise of industry, came cheap and efficient transport in the form of railways and this suddenly made fresh fish available to everyone and the death of fish pickling. The discovery and development of the canning technique gave a heavy blow to the art of pickling and refrigeration was the green light to mass production and a near fatal blow to pickling. Whilst advancements in food technology have served to enhance our diet, but all good things can be overdone and mass production has led to monotony. Looking at historical pickling recipes gives rise to a world of possibilities that stretch beyond modern concepts of pickle such as beetroot. From curiously named recipes from the fourteenth century for a pickle called ‘compost’ to Tudor recipes for pickled mushrooms and Victorian ideas for pickling everything from sheep brains to damsons there is some real inspiration to be gained from culinary history when it comes to the realms of pickling.

Recipe for Medieval Style Pickled Salad:  Compost

This is a modern recipe for a medieval pickled root vegetable salad known as compost. The original recipe for Compost is to be found in the fourteenth century book, ‘Forme of Cury’, this is my interpretation of that recipe. It is rather unusual in name and ingredients but nevertheless it is delicious.


600g carrots, sliced

3-4 pears, peeled, cored and sliced thinly

6 stems of lovage, chopped finely (or celery)

100g radishes, sliced

200g turnips, sliced thinly

1 tsp. rock salt

6 Tbs.  Cider vinegar

2 tsp.  Ground ginger

4 threads of saffron

750 ml white wine

113g runny honey

1 Tbs. mustard powder

170 g raisins

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

½ Tbs. fennel seed

½ tsp ground anise seed


Boil the carrots, turnips and lovage in water for four minutes, and then add the pears and radishes. Cook until tender; drain well. Lay vegetables mixture on a clean tea towel and sprinkle over the salt. Let the vegetables cool and then place in a large non-metallic basin and cover with the vinegar, ginger and saffron. Cover with cling film and let stand overnight. In the morning combine the vegetables with the currants and the fennel seeds. Place the vegetable mixture and liquid in a glass preserving jar, such as a Kilner jar and set aside. In a saucepan bring the honey, remaining spices, and wine to a boil, skimming off the scum until clear. Remove from the heat and pour over the vegetable mixture. Seal immediately.  May be stored for a week or longer if refrigerated, this is really rather good and tastes nothing like the name ‘Compost’ suggests.

During the Tudor period pickling for the wealthy became as much about taste as it did preservation. Pickled vegetables, herbs such as parsley root and mushrooms were all preserved in expensively spiced vinegars to be enjoyed with meals.

Elizabethan Pickled Mushrooms

This recipe is adapted from The Whole Body of Cookery, 1661 and allows the modern cook to get a taste of Tudor pickles. These mushrooms are delicious enjoyed with good mature cheese and a hunk of bread.


 250g closed cup mushrooms

 480ml water

1 tsp rock salt

1 tsp white peppercorns

4 whole cloves

1 thin slice of fresh galingale

1 thin slice of fresh ginger root

 3 tsp ground nutmeg

180ml white wine

50ml cider vinegar


Wipe the mushrooms with a damp cloth (do not wash with water as they are like sponges and will absorb too much water impairing the pickling process).  Place the water in a saucepan, add half the salt and the mushrooms and bring to the boil. Once they have started to boil drain the mushrooms immediately and place in a large preserving (Kilner) jar. Add the spices and the remainder of the salt to the mushrooms and then pour the wine and the vinegar over the top.  Top up with additional vinegar if need be and shake vigorously to ensure the spices are evenly distributed in the jar.  Store in a cool, dark place for four days before opening

The Victorians loved to preserve and pickle their way through the seasons and we owe credit to them for many of our modern day recipes and pickle favourites.  When thinking of a final recipe to include here I deliberated long and hard over what to include and eventually settled on a Victorian recipe that has been passed through my family for Damson Pickle. Once tried this recipe will fast become a favourite and it is a real pantry staple as once made it will keep for years and keeps on improving with age. Fabulous added to game pies and casseroles or served with cheeses or cold meats.


Family Favourite Damson Pickle


4lbs (2kg) damsons

3lbs (1.5kg) Demerara sugar

½ pint (300ml) vinegar

1 cinnamon stick


Place the cinnamon and cloves in a muslin bag and place in a pan with the sugar and vinegar. Boil for 10 minutes and remove the spices. Add the fruit and boil for ten minutes. Be careful not to break up and mush the fruit whilst stirring. Place into a large sterilised jar and seal.

Pickling is an art worth mastering and once you have tasted the sweet, sour, rich, tantalizing notes of a home-made pickle there is no turning back, shop bought will never do again.  Happy Pickling!




  • Seren Charrington Hollins

    Seren runs a catering business and delicatessen in Mid Wales, but she is not your run of the mill caterer or deli owner. She is a mother of six and an internationally recognised food historian who has created banquets and historical dinner parties for private clients and television. Her work has been featured on the BBC, ITV & Channel 4 and she has appeared in BBC4’s Castle’s Under Siege, BBC South's Ration Book Britain, Pubs that Built Britain with The Hairy Bikers, BBC 2’s Inside the Factory, BBC 2’s The World’s Most Amazing Hotels, the Channel 4 series Food Unwrapped and Country Files Autumn Diaries. Her work has also been featured in The Guardian, The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Mail and The Telegraph. Her two most recent books are 'Revolting Recipes from History' and 'A Dark History of Tea'

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