Pickling My Way Around the World

I made several plans before I started this adventure, to give myself ways to stay grounded and feel at home regardless of place. One of those plans involves pickles, and the strangest item in my luggage: a glass pickle weight (thanks, mom!).

I decided that every time I stayed in one place for long enough, I would make a small batch of lacto-fermented (aka naturally fermented, without adding vinegar) pickled vegetables. I experimented before I left with a few batches of pickled green beans, carrots, and cauliflower (including one miserable failure and one smashing success). I also tried an experimental batch of sauerkraut, but it didn’t go well – partly because I made it too salty, but mostly because I remembered that I don’t like sauerkraut. Oops.

Pickling appealed to me for several reasons:

1) It’s spectacularly domestic, like pioneer homesteader-level domestic. Time to lay in some vegetables from the garden for the winter! I can easily daydream throughout the process, imagining I’m in my farmhouse kitchen wearing an apron and staring out the window at the endless prairie and packing vegetables into jars so I can take them down into the root cellar while my husband is off scything some hay. Most of my pioneer fantasies are heavily informed by my childhood love for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, in case that wasn’t clear. The various books also tend to get conflated in my imaginary world, so I can be making maple sugar candy with freshly-collected sap one minute and churning butter in the hot prairie sunshine the next. Who needs realism?

2) It’s healthy. Anything that involves building up good strong gut bacteria while traveling the world is a plus, especially since I like to try local foods and street foods on a regular basis. I have a strong stomach but it doesn’t win every time! I do use the trick I learned from Magda in Morocco, when I’m feeling particularly apprehensive — “Drink a Coke if you go swimming in the sea after a rain [translation: if you’re going swimming with raw sewage]. Coke kills everything! You can use it to clean drains, also to kill bacteria so that you won’t get sick. If you need to be extra sure, add some schnapps.” It may be partly the placebo effect, but this has worked wonders for me, both as a prevention and as a cure. That said, I would prefer to build up the good bacteria rather than trying to kill everything, and drinking soda all the time isn’t great for my overall health or my waistline. Including things like yogurt and fresh lacto-fermented pickles in my diet is a much better solution (though I do keep the Coke nuclear option at hand for the times when I want to go surfing in questionable waters or eat particularly risky foods).

3) It’s a nice way to get to know a place and feel settled there. Each place has new pickling vegetable candidates that are either unique or especially delicious. I love the process of searching out the markets, researching mystery vegetables when needed, preparing them for pickling, and then tending to them for the week or so it takes them to ferment. It ties me to a place and helps me feel more rooted there.

4) As an added bonus, lacto-fermentation is a beautiful mix of nerdy science stuff and creative intuition. The science part is interesting – it’s fun to watch the brine go cloudy and then clear again as different strains of bacteria battle it out. It’s also fun to hunt through various kitchens for a glass large enough for my pickle weight but not so wide that the pickles escape around the edges (as they ferment, they make bubbles and try to float to the top, and if they come in contact with the air, they mold). It’s also entertaining to find suitable covers for the glass, which is sometimes a larger glass or a small saucer, or in a pinch, part of a plastic bag held on with a hairtie. And then there’s always the part of estimating the salt, which isn’t an exact science to begin with (the amount needed varies based on the weather, the veggies, your personal taste, etc). It becomes extra challenging when you have no way to measure either the glass you’re using or the salt itself — very few spartan traveler’s kitchens come with measuring utensils, I’ve found.

In Morocco, I bought giant carrots and a head of cauliflower at the souk, and made a delicious batch of the two mixed together in a German beer stein.

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Carrots at the Souk in Aourir aka Banana Village, Morocco

In Budapest, I failed to make pickles because it took me too long to find the vegetable market. It was a neat building once I found it, though:

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Central Market Hall, Budapest

In Belgrade, I bought a bundle of adorable tiny baby radishes and cut them in half. I forgot to take a picture, sadly… The radishes lost their color but the brine turned bright pink, and they were delicious.

In Tirana, I discovered tiny sour green plums. They’re about the size of crab apples, bright green, and crunchy (quite tasty). I scored them around their middles and pickled a batch – they lost their color and went a bit brownish, but they were tart and delicious.

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Sour green plums freshly placed in brine in my kitchen in Tirana, Albania

I think I’ll be traveling too quickly for the next couple months to make pickles, but I plan to start again in the fall, and I can’t wait to see which vegetable (or fruit) I try next!

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