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Pickled pink

Peter Piper picked a peck and you will want to, too
PRIZED PICKLE PIZZA Customers desperate for a real slice have been offering up to $50 for the last piece of pickle pizza at this year's PNE. Photo by Glenda Bartosh

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, and you might want to, too, after checking out some of the tart-smart inspiration kicking around pickles these days.

Never mind all the gorgeous fresh produce now on hand for your pickling pleasure—cukes, beets, pumpkin, garlic, carrots, and more, all to be had at your local farmers' market or grocery store (look for that "product of B.C." label). After being relegated to the backburner of the food line-up for years as being too old-school, too nerdy or just plain boring, everything pickled is pickable again.

The sassy New York-inspired flavours of Kaylin and Hobbs Pickles, which opened shop at Granville Island Public Market a while ago, has generated such a roaring trade they've expanded to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver and soon will be opening at L.A.'s big farmers' market.

West Coast eateries are big on pickles, too. (Maybe it's all those sea pickles invading the Pacific Northwest.) Shed Tofino on Vancouver Island is known for its Brittany's Spears (deep-fried dill pickles), while zippy notes from the likes of pickled green strawberries and pickled carrots have been an undercurrent for North Star chef Warren Barr, formerly of Tofino's lovely Point Restaurant, now captaining his own culinary craft, Pluvio, in Ucluelet.

Closer to home, Whistler's 21 Steps is known for its yummy marinated olives served up with fried garlic, while the house pickles on the chicken shawarma sandwich at Hunter Gather are a simply delicious nod to pickle history (see below).

If this is all far too serious for you, check out all things pickled at the PNE this year. The pickle pizza is running neck-and-neck with the gorgeous green pickle-flavoured cotton candy as top must-try items, along with the butterbeer ice cream (think butterscotch for flavour, and the ale of Harry Potter wizards, for inspiration).

Yep, pickles are hot, which the gang dishing out the pickle pizza at Rick's Pizza Stand at the PNE can happily confirm. Desperate customers have offered 20 and even 50 bucks for a last slice of pickle pizza at the end of the night.

And, surprise, surprise—it's good, with a cheesy/mayo base subbing for the usual tomato sauce. Ditto the pickle-flavoured cotton candy, sporting a nice balance of sweet and sour, and dill notes to finish (that's my tongue in my cheek there, for all you wine aficionados).

But then just about everything pickled has tasted great for centuries, mainly because it was a reliable way of preserving food to keep it tasty and healthy long before refrigeration was invented. You simply need an acidic solution (vinegar) or a salty one (brine) to prevent unwanted bacteria and microbes from spoiling just about any food.

While it's often hard to pin down the "first" of anything, the New York Food Museum tells us that people living in Mesopotamia are credited for making the first pickles around 2400 BCE. That's more than 4,000 years of pickles, so no wonder we have such variety and scope. Cleopatra valued them for her good looks and Napoleon valued them for his soldiers' health. And while Japan and Korea are considered the pickle nirvana, the U.K. isn't far behind.

Mrs. Beeton's 1859 Book of Household Management, the bible for running a household in Britain of the day, and maybe even in a few corners now, has no fewer than 19 pickle recipes, from walnuts to nasturtiums and beef tongue. No wonder Shakespeare gave us the expression "getting yourself in a pickle" when you're in a bind; it's a line in Act 5 in Hamlet.

Once you start talking pickles, the sky's the limit. Pickled cukes, as in dill pickles (the dill originally from Sumatra; cukes native to India) are traditionally top-of-mind for Canadians, but that's just the start. Pickled oysters, once a favourite of 1800s America, are making a comeback. And in our gloriously diverse West Coast cuisine, we have tsukemono from Japan—pickled seaweed, radishes, garlic and more; spicy kimchee from Korea; preserved lemons from the Middle East; and just about anything you can think of, including that cotton candy.

Whatever you do, don't get yourself into a proverbial pickle if you want to try making some of your own. Ask mom, or call up DuckDuckGo and you'll find lots of good recipes online. This one is easy, as the name "5 Minute Dill Pickles" implies. Our family's been eating them for years, and they're as good at a late-summer picnic as in a bagged lunch.

In a pot, mix 1 cup water, 1 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring it all to a boil and pour it over an English cucumber that's been cut to length and quartered and put in a suitable container. Add in 2-3 tablespoons of fresh, chopped dill, if you have it. Chill overnight in your fridge. That's it! Pickles to go.

As for Peter Piper and his peck, that favourite kids' tongue twister was first published in 1813. Peter Piper, however, was a very real 18th century, multi-tasking person, namely Pierre Poivre—horticulturalist, botanist, missionary in the Far East, and part of the French East India Company. He's noted for introducing spice plants, such as nutmeg, to places like Mauritius.

In those days spices were often referred to as "peppers," which were traded in pecks, a unit of measurement used exclusively for dry goods. One peck equals about eight dry quarts or a quarter bushel.

That measurement has since pretty much fallen into disuse but, thankfully, pickles, in all their variations, have not. Pick a pickle today.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who recommends the PNE as a happy counterpoint to any back-to-normal September blues. It ends Sept. 2.