It is impossible to imagine a Hungarian summer without these large, pot-bellied jars, which are placed in the sun to let the pickled gherkins mature. Whether stored under the eaves of the farmhouses, in a corner of a terrace, or on the kitchen window ledge of a city apartment, these gherkins, which are preserved by the process of lactic acid fermentation (kovászos uborka), are simply everywhere.
Some 4 1/2 pounds (two kilograms) of cucumbers are needed for a 6 1/2 pint (3-liter) jar. The right gherkins (or cucumbers) are four to five inches (10-12 centimetres) in length, two fingers thick, and crispy fresh. They are sold on markets and in numerous delis with one other vital ingredient: half dried dill (several stalks are required, with flowers if possible). And that's the end of the shopping list, since the remaining ingredients are usually to hand in every household: a thick slice of bread (dark is better), two cloves of garlic, and salt.
First, place the cucumbers in a large bowl with lukewarm water to remove any sand on the skins. Clean thoroughly under running water, using a brush if necessary. Discard the two ends and slash the skins. It is worth testing every single cucumber, since a single bitter one can ruin the whole jar.
Add a heaped tablespoon of salt to a good two pints (one litre) of water, and bring to a boil. Leave to cool for about five minutes. Meanwhile, place half the dill and a peeled, sliced clove of garlic in the bottom of the jar, then layer the cucumbers on top. When the jar is half full, add a second layer of herbs and garlic; the bread is placed on top. Then pour the salt water over the cucumbers to cover them, and moisten the bread. Put a lid, a small plate, or a piece of cheese- cloth over the jar, and place in the sun. The cucumbers will have ceased fermenting after three or four days. The water turns cloudy during the fermentation, becoming opaque and milky.
People who prefer their pickled gherkins with a little more spice add half an onion, a piece of peeled horseradish, some sour cherry leaves, and marjoram and/or basil, as well as the dill and garlic.
It is worthwhile testing the gherkins before ending the fermentation process. Pickled gherkins should always be pleasantly sour and not too soft, giving a little resistance when bitten into.
Now discard the bread, remove the gherkins, and rinse them. Pack them into smaller, well-sealing jars and cover with the fermentation water, passing it through a very fine sieve. Stored in the refrigerator in airtight jars, they will keep for up to three weeks.
Pickled gherkins are served ice cold, and without the liquid. In Hungary, on hot summer days, they are often served on crushed ice. Chilled gherkin liquid, diluted with soda water if preferred, is welcome at this time of year as a healthy and refreshing drink.
Hungarian consumers prize these organically grown "warty" cucumbers.
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