It may be un-American not to love pickles. We have to have them, cozied up to all our beloved sandwiches, sometimes even sliced inside them, or just munched cold from the fridge. We each eat about nine pounds of them a year, clamoring for them so much that more than half of the cucumbers that we grow become pickles.
I’m picky about pickles myself: a pickle purist, if you will. Even in the finest diners and sandwich shops, I find that most pickles served don’t merit more than a nibble. But a good fat crunchy New York deli-style pickle, with a flavor and zing that punches you in the teeth: That’s a pickle worth picking. And such pickles aren’t easy to come by – rare at the supermarket, rare outside New York delis. But fortunately the Hudson Valley is close enough to New York to have some fine examples of pickles in that genre.
One such product is available at the Brine Barrel, which opened last fall in Saugerties. A one-stop antipasto-fixin’s shop, the Partition Street storefront offers a large variety of pickled and marinated things, too. Owner Matt Gleason carries marinated mushrooms, marinated artichokes, giardiniera mix, green tomatoes, sauerkraut and pepper shooters (cherry peppers stuffed with prosciutto and provolone). There are several kinds of olives, and at a recent visit I found three kinds out for tasting: a nice robust Kalamata and two very green, fresh olives named after their Italian villages, a Castelvetrano from western Sicily that had a rich flavor that my daughter said reminded her of artichokes, and Cerignola from Puglia. Gleason has a red Cerignola, too, which is less bitter, dyed red to differentiate it from its stronger green cousin. He also carries softer green Italian olives in different sizes, Sicilian-style olives from California and a tasty, zesty tapenade. He has a large variety of cheeses and Citterio meats, both domestic and imported, such as salames, coppas and more.
But I think that the star attraction is the pickles. My favorite is the dill: a fine pickle indeed. It has an excellent crispness and flavor, a pleasant taste and texture and a very slight sweetness to balance out the tang – very well-balanced. I had to take some home, along with my second-favorite, which is Gleason’s own favorite: the half-sour. This treat takes only a relatively short bath in the salty brine and seems almost more cuke than pickle. It’s super-crisp, almost nutty, with an intense garlicky flavor – no milquetoast of the pickle world. For other pickle preferences, there is a full sour – like a garlicky half-sour, but with a longer brine bath; a hot pickle that is zingy enough to wake up your mouth without being incendiary; and a bread-and-butter: sweet but not too, and crisp enough to add just what any sandwich needs. All varieties are available to taste before choosing.
There are relishes made of the pickles chopped up, and you can buy a quart of brine for a buck, to marinate your own veggies or just to drink. Gleason says that local bartenders like it to mix into bar beverages.
The pickle process that results in such lovely New York deli-style pickles begins with soaking the vegetable in salty water (brine), which draws moisture out of it so that the acid that gives it its pickly taste isn’t too diluted, also preserving the crunch and keeping the product from spoiling. That’s why a brine can’t be used over and over: because the water content goes too high, says Gleason. The acidity can come from added vinegar and/or a natural acidity from lactic acid, which is a byproduct of the pickle’s natural fermentation. The salt levels have to be strictly monitored for this to happen and to make a perfect pickle. And as all-American as we consider the pickle, it has been done this way since between 4,000 and 2,000 BCE in either India or Iraq.
Gleason has been making pickles for three years, and like some other local picklers, got his start at the Pickle Festival in Rosendale. He has sold them and other fairs and festivals, and happy customers encouraged him to go into the business.
The Brine Barrel is growing. Already Gleason has extended the hours from weekends-only to every-day-but-Monday, and has expanded his offerings. But he’s not done; he wants a bigger place where all products can be made on-site, and he has room for even more products.
Gleason has a pickle club, where if you buy six quarts you get one free. More information is available at http://brinebarrel.com, on Facebook and Twitter and via the good old-fashioned telephone at (845) 246-6015. The Brine Barrel is located at 237 Partition Street; hours are Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.