Tickles’ Pickles founder Chetanya Alexander comes from a family who are ahead of their time when it comes to food. Her parents were producing seitan, the meat alternative now favoured by vegan eaters, back in the 1970s in Bristol. They would also take Alexander foraging for food, returning home with buckets of seaweed.
It’s no surprise then that Alexander was on the fermented food trend train long before it took off. She has been making pickles for years for friends and family, and in 2015 she launched Tickles’ Pickles with a naturally fermented kimchi and Persian torshi made with turnip.
“The idea of the business is to make naturally fermented pickles from all around the world as there is such a wealth of fermentation tradition and this is how we used to preserve food,” she tells Food Spark.
Alexander describes her kimchi as having a crunchy texture and a strong flavour with lots of umami, garlic, onion and ginger. The torshi has a cleaner flavour profile, combining the pepperiness of the turnip with a slight earthiness from beetroot and a complex sourness from the fermentation into a crispy bite.
While she created her own recipe for the kimchi, it is grounded in some star-studded authenticity.
“I did also go to Korea. I stayed in a nunnery in a hermitage and learned to make kimchi with the nuns, so I actually learned with Jeong Kwan who was on Chef’s Table recently. She didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Korean, but she would point at the cabbages and say ‘wishy washy,’ so the experience was like the movie The Karate Kid but with cabbages,” she jokes.
“With the torshi, I went to a lot of different Middle Eastern restaurants to taste different pickles. I got a friend of mine who is Persian to get her grandmother and mother to test the authenticity. I’m not a stickler for tradition, I think it’s fine to take a recipe to make it your own or give it a modern twist, but in order to do that you have to know what the original pickle is about – then you can break the rules and twist it.”
Not just a side
Alexander says her products can be used anywhere where a familiar pickle is used, like an onion or gherkin, such as in burgers, sandwiches and salads, as well part of tapas or mezze sharing plates. Kimchi is often incorporated into cooking as well, she says, with a number of recipes for things like kimchi stews and pancakes, while torshi works well with hummus or on the side of a lentil stew.
But Alexander thinks the appeal of pickles could be extended by positioning them as a healthy snack alternative.
“Quite a lot of friends, family and consumers wrote to me to say that they would happily snack on kimchi and have half a pot rather than eat toast or crisps. I think there is some evidence that if you eat pickles, something with a strong acidic flavour, it takes away your craving for things like chocolate, and perhaps it extends to crisps,” she says.
“When I’m snacking, if I taste something quite strong like a pickle, it will satisfy an urge for a treat. I think it can be a good healthy snack replacement... If people are having a drink in Russia they have vodka and pickles instead of crisps.”
Russia could be inspiration for Alexander’s next pickle, a carrot and dill soleniya, but she also has other recipes under development, including an Indian carrot and lime achaar, an Italian giardiniera and the British ploughman’s and piccalilli.
She would like to expand the range to five or six pickles, but is also keen to do a seasonal pickle run. All the pickles would be healthy versions, particularly the British pickles, which are often made with sugar.
Tickles’ Pickles range is currently stocked in Whole Foods, Planet Organic, Amazon, Ocado and other independent retailers, and Alexander has seen the trend for fermented foods grow since she was the first kimchi in stores three years ago.
“In the health food market, it had started to grow three years ago. It’s always the way with these things, they start off in a small way with quite a small group of informed shoppers. So Planet Organic and Whole Foods’ shoppers are foodies and are abreast of food research, and then that filters into the mainstream,” she says.
“With some of the other food trends, they aren’t necessarily that scientifically based, but with fermented foods the science has been quite big around the microbiome and gut health, and I think that has driven it into the mainstream.”
She would like to see her pickles in the major supermarkets too, particularly as she sees the brand as a British company making locally produced food.
“I like the idea of focusing on pickles. It’s not like it’s a limited area, there is so much potential there as there are a wealth of recipes and a lot of scope for people to eat more pickles, not only because they are healthy and tasty, but they work really well in dishes.”