I once found myself sitting next to an 89-year-old man in navy polyester blazer, smart trousers, and polished shoes, drinking a sherry in a residential care home in Shropshire. When I asked how he'd stayed so robust over the last nine decades, his face collapsed into a riverbed of enormous, wrinkled grinning and he gave me this simple answer: "Just like you preserve everything else: pickling, smoking, and salt."
I am reminded of my octogenarian life coach as I walk through Freddie Janssen's sun-flooded fourth-floor flat. Janssen is famous across in East London food world for pickling. In her new book, Pickled, she jars up a dazzling array of ingredients: watermelon peel, okra, fennel, nashi pear, mustard greens—either to be eaten as snacks or as an intrinsic part of new recipes. And while my smoking days are behind me and even I'm aware that salt is no longer accepted as a condiment into which to dip your dinner, I am more than willing to give pickling a go.
As someone who used to drink malt vinegar out of a glass at pub lunches, I was obviously thrilled to watch Janssen make one of the book's recipes from scratch. And so I found myself, on a sunny Friday morning, looking out at Canary Wharf and Anish Kapoor's The ArcelorMittal Orbit on the horizon, as Janssen did her thing in her very own kitchen.
The dish we're making is bourbon-pickled Okra with a smoky crema dip. I say "we"—I spent much of the morning sitting next to a plant pot in the shape of a pair of tits, trying to talk over the rumbles of my stomach.
The first thing Janssen does is wash and dry the okra on a paper towel. She then heats equal parts rice wine vinegar, cider vinegar, and water before adding yellow mustard seeds, chili flakes, coriander seeds, salt, and of course, sugar. The tang of the vinegar hits the back of my nose as she stirs.
"You can pickle anything," says Janssen, her white blonde hair picked up in a shaft of sunlight. "It makes something like okra, which people sometimes think of as slimy, really fucking crunchy and lovely."
Janssen got into pickling after first tasting kimchi on a plane. That's right—she had a food epiphany thousands of feet in the air, just metres from a vacuum-flushing toilet.
"It was an Asiana Airlines flight and completely blew my mind," she remembers. "I kept asking everyone if I could eat their little tubes of paste, I couldn't get enough."
After moving to London in 2008 from Maastricht, Holland, and spending a couple of years working in advertising, Janssen made the leap into food. She founded F.A.T, a pop-up cafe and supper club and started selling her pickles, kimchi, and sauces throughout London—currently manning a stall at Druid Market. And it's all thanks to the power of sour.
Talking of sour, my face puckers into disbelief when I see a bottle of 15-year-old Pappy Van Winkle on her kitchen block. She's surely not using this—one of the world's most expensive spirits—in the bourbon pickle juice, I ask, eyes wide?
"If you're a total baller, you use 15-year-old Pappy Van Winkle," laughs Janssen, "but I sometimes use Jim Beam instead." Thank Christ.
Janssen peels and slices several bulbs of garlic, a huge ceramic cockatiel jug above her shoulder like a pirate. She then grates the zest of a lemon straight into a kilner jar, adds a couple of sprigs of dill and starts to push the okra in on top. Once her lady fingers have stuffed the jar entirely with lady fingers, she pours the pickling juice over the top and snaps the top shut. These will be ready to eat, she says, in a couple of days but can last for weeks.
Luckily, like all great children's television presenters and sex doll enthusiasts, Janssen has one she's made earlier. These okra have been pickling for half a week and are ready for the deep fry.
Man, I love deep-frying. As I watch Janssen pour nearly a whole bottle of vegetable oil into her large cast iron pot, I wonder why we ever eat salads at all. The batter is simple: flour, egg, salt, pepper and a healthy swig of beer. She then dips each pickled okra into the batter, in turn, and lowers it into the hot oil.
As these bubble away, Janssen finishes her dip. After charring a bunch of spring onions in the oven, she adds olive oil, fresh coriander, and seasoning into a NutriBullet and blitzes the whole thing until it's smooth as a saxophone solo. She then stirs the green sludge through sour cream, yogurt, and mayonnaise.
By this point, I'm basically a small intestine holding a biro and can barely wait for anything to cool down before I tuck in. The okra is, just as Janssen says, fucking crunchy and lovely. It has a freshness that cuts through the creamy greasy joy of the dip and the crunchy batter. I eat about five to Janssen's one but am way past feeling self-conscious.
As it's only 10.30 in the morning, we don't wash our meal down with a shot of Pappy's or even a beer. But I feel nevertheless intoxicated as I pack up my things in the warm morning sunshine and stroll out of Janssen's flat, past the jars, the ceramic bowls, the smell of spiced vinegar, and of course, that pair-of-tits plant pot.
It's not even midday and already, a Dutch girl has tickled my pickle. What a wonderful world.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.