How to pickle Cowcumbers, The whole body of cookery dissected; Rabisha, 1661

How to pickle Cowcumbers, The whole body of cookery dissected; Rabisha, 1661

This is a recipe that is too good to pass up!  I learned quite a bit while working on this recipe and I am too excited to wait for the final product not to share. 

The author begins his book in a most humble fashion: 
Impartial Reader,

MAny reasons have at last induced me to present the world with this small Tract of my many years study and practice in the Art and Mysterie of Cookery.
....he goes on to explain his reasons and the one that has stuck with me throughout the years is this: 
Secondly, It hath been the practice of most of the ingenuous men of all Arts and Sciences, to hold forth to Posterity, what light or knowledge they understood to be obscure in their said Art: And the wisest of Philosphers, learned and pious men of old, have highly extolled these principles, who went not out like the snuff of a candle, but have left their Volumes to after-ages, to be their School-master in what they have a mind to practise, which calls back time, and gives life to the dead.
And another statement which struck me further into the letter of introduction: 
Yet there is an evil amongst most men, when they have learned themselves by other mens light, they would extinguish that light, that none might follow them; and so men monopolize all knowledge therein to themselves, and condemn all those that are a guide and light to the ignorant; there is none other but such will condemn me in what I have done.

I have a confession to make, when attempting to work out vague instructions in earlier books, I often find myself referring to books that are printed just out of period to try to develop an idea of what the flavorings may have been in our period. I have found that the instructions are a little bit more complete and this recipe for a pickled cucumber is no exception. The instructions on the preparation of your cucumbers, and the quantity of the seasonings is very complete.  What was surprising was the method used in creating your pickled cucumber.  The pickles are first brined and then some of the water is removed and replaced with white wine vinegar.  The result is a taste explosion in your mouth; floral from the cucumber, sharp from the vinegar and then the spices; first dill, pepper, and mace, and lastly bay and clove. It is delicious and a must try for anyone who enjoys pickles.  

You are first instructed to take your smallest cucumbers "after Bartholmew-tyde".  Bartholmew-tyde is August 24th and celebrates the festival of St Bartholomew - patron saint of tanners, plasterers, tailors, leatherworkers, bookbinders, farmers, housepainters, butchers, and glove makers. He is one of the 12 Apostles, and was either decapitated or skinned alive, the stories very.  The recipe gives us an idea of when to prepare the pickle.  Curious, I researched when cucumbers were in season, specifically in England.  I discovered that they are available March through October, but they are at their best in the months of April through September.  In preparing pickled cucumbers after the middle August, cucumbers were being pickled when they were at their best, and before the season ended. 

It is also interesting to note that the seasonings that are used in the preparation of this recipe; salt, bay leaves, dill leaves, pepper, mace, and cloves, are antibacterial. Cucumbers are layered in a pot or firkin with layers of Bay leaves and dill before a cooled solution of water infused with enough salt to bear an egg and dill as an option are poured over them.  

What this recipe seems to lack is an acid.  Further research pointed me to something I had discarded in my original attempt at this recipe because I did not understand the purpose of the instructions. Specifically, you are advised to "dip a cloth in beer, and rub them (cucumbers) clean from the dirt". Alcohol, in this case beer, acts as a preservative for the vegetables -- but only if -- the acidity of the alcohol is at least 5%.  At less than 5% acidity the opportunity for sugars in the alcohol and bacteria to interact is higher which could lead to illness.   

Pickling is a method of preserving fruits and vegetables by adding acid which transforms the flavor. There are two ways acid can be added to vegetables.  The first and the one most people would think of when you say pickle is the introduction of a vinegar based brine.  

The second, and the method, which is used here, is fermentation over a period of time in a water and salt solution during which time beneficial bacterial transforms natural sugars into lactic acid. It is commonly known as lacto-fermentation.  One of the more common misconceptions about lacto-fermentation is the idea that you need to introduce a dairy based whey (yogurt or whey from cheesemaking) to the vegetables to achieve the pickle.  The "lacto" in the term lacto-fermentation refers to lactobacillus, the bacteria which creates lactic acid as a byproduct. It lives everywhere and is commonly found on vegetables and fruit--no dairy needed.

How to pickle Cowcumbers

TAke your smallest Cowcumbers, or Gerkines, after Bartholmew-tyde, dip a cloth in beer, and rub them clean from the dirt, then put a laying of Bay and Dill leafes in the bottom of your Firkin or Pot, and a quantity of whole Pepper, two or three blades of Mace, and as many Cloves; then place a laying of Cowcumbers thereon; so continue with your said in gredients till your Pot or Firkin be full; then make a Liquor with fair water, and good store of Dill to make it strong, with so much salt as will bear an egg; you may infuse the Dill, or you may boyl it, but let it be cold, then put it into your Cowcumbers; let this pickle continue to them almost a fortnight, then pour part away, and fill it up with white wine Vinegar, so shall your Cowcumbers be green and crisp, and not too sour.

The whole body of cookery dissected, taught, and fully manifested, methodically, artificially, and according to the best tradition of the English, French, Italian, Dutch, &c., or, A sympathie of all varieties in naturall compounds in that mysterie wherein is contained certain bills of fare for the seasons of the year, for feasts and common diets : whereunto is annexed a second part of rare receipts of cookery, with certain useful traditions : with a book of preserving, conserving and candying, after the most exquisite and newest manner ...

Rabisha, William.London: Printed by R.W. for Giles Calvert ..., 1661.

Interpreted Recipe

1 pound small cucumbers
1/4 cup (or more) beer of choice (I suggest wheat beer, pale ale/IPA, stout or portar)
Handful of bay leaves (I bought the half ounce fresh herbs from the store)
Handful of fresh dill (see above)
1 1/2 tbsp. whole black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. ground mace
4-6 whole cloves
Heavily salted water (for each cup of water use 3 tbsp. of kosher salt-this will float an egg)

These directions are vague and for that I apologize.  I used a 32-ounce jar, the jar you use may be different in size, hence the "method" of the instructions instead of actual measures.  

Early in the day measure your water and add your salt.  If you wish to infuse the brine with dill, add the thickest parts of your dill stems, or dried dill. Bring the water to boil and allow to cool to room temperature. You may want to strain out the dill. I did not. 

While the brine is cooling prepare your jar and your cucumbers.  The jar needs to be super sterile, I washed my jar on the sterilize cycle in the dishwasher.  The cucumbers need to be cleaned off with your beer. Cut off the stem end of the cucumber and wipe the cucumber off with a towel dampened with beer.

Cover the bottom of the jar with bay leaves and fresh dill and then add your cucumbers. Continue to layer until your jar is full.  Add in the remaining spices and cover with the brine.  I used a coffee filter tied to the jar with some string instead of the lid.  Allow the jar to sit in a warm place for 12 to 14 days.  Pour off a measure of your water (I removed half the water and added the vinegar and found it too sharp the first time.  The second time, I removed a cup of water and added a cup of vinegar and I preferred that) and add your white vinegar.  Pickles will store beautifully in the refrigerator for approximately two months.  The longer they are stored, the better they will taste. 

Note: If the pickles feel bad (slimy or feel rotten), smell bad (rancid), become odd colored (grey, brown or black), develop a funky colored mold (anything other then white), tastes bad (if you are brave enough to taste something that smells foul and feels slimy), or makes your stomach upset after a taste test-- toss it and start over.  Do not take chances.  

White yeast known as Kahm yeast may develop on top of your pickle. It is fuzzy in appearance and may have an odor, but not a rancid one. It is harmless and will not affect taste, smell, or feel of your pickle, remove it and the item it may have attached to. If your pickle is complete, place it in the fridge, otherwise you may notice a return of the Kahm in a few days.