Saturday, March 1, 2008

pantry no. 2: cornichons

Another snowstorm, another day. On this March 1st, the storm stops short of projections, and the sky begins to clear, the clouds evaporating to blue. Out on the ski trail around our field, the sun feels hot. Even though we have a few feet of snow on the ground, the season is changing, and we strip off our coats to forge the trail. A bird sings in the distance.

After our ski, we know we can sit in the sun on the porch protected from any Ides of March. The air is scented with woodsmoke curling from our chimney. There is a tray loaded with olives, dried salame, two glasses of white wine, and a local cow’s milk cheese which tastes like a winter stream and grass. And there are cornichons, those little vinegar-cured pickles that complement just about everything.

A good pantry should always be stocked with a jar of cornichons. We buy nine pound cans of Trois Cochon from one of our purveyors and store them in our pantry. Nine pounds seems like a lot, but we go through them much quicker than you might think. They are perfect for quick hors d’oeuvres, but they also are good with so many other dishes as well. We use them with smoked salmon, or trout, and in a Russian or potato salad. In deviled eggs. On sandwiches. They are a must alongside a good country pate.

Cornichon is simply the French word for gherkin, meaning a small cucumber that’s been picked at about 1-3 inches long, then brined in vinegar, possibly along with other spices. Gherkin is a word of Persian origin, angārah, passing through Greek and Polish, and coming into English usage from early modern Dutch in which the diminutive gurkkijn or agurkkijn describes a small cucumber. The word “pickle” also comes from Dutch, pekel, which is a salt or acid preserving liquid. In Swedish, they say gurka which actually means cucumber. The Germans say gurke.

It’s believed that the fruit originated in India, and our can of Trois Cochon holds pickles harvested from India. Ancient Mesopotamians feasted on pickled gherkins even before the 3rd century BC. Gherkins can also be found in food references from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The English diarist Samuel Pepys mentioned the “girkin” in the 17th century. It's thought that Gerkhins may have come to Western Europe from the Middle East in the course of the Jewish Diaspora.

In America, the first reference is by a Mr. Minton Collins in Richmond, Virginia who was offering them for sale in the Virginia Gazette in 1792, and they apparently were a favorite food of Thomas Jefferson. Initially, curing gherkins was a domestic activity, then the jar of pickles became a commercial product in France as early at the 1820’s.

So, one hundred and eighty-eight years later, we stock our pantry with a can of French packaged Indian cornichons. While we are devotees of local food, we are thankful for the luxury of imported staples that we cannot grow or raise here in the colder climes of Northern New England. While our local food allows us to taste where we are, the pleasure of eating a cornichon, or olive, or hot sweet African pepper allows us to step for a moment on the ground of another country reminding us that we are one small part of a very large, miraculous universe.


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