The Practice and Politics of Pickling

In the Sydney’s Inner West, traditional methods of food preparation and preservation are being reclaimed in an effort to reduce food waste.

Article by Shaney Hudson

Freshly prepared pickling jars are lined up after a class. Photography by Shaney Hudson.

It’s hard to make pickling current; after all it’s been practised since the early days of agriculture, but in the kitchens of Sydney’s Inner West, the four-thousand-year old food preservation technique is regaining momentum, not least because of its ability to stem food wastage.

With 24-hour supermarket convenience, mass production and big brand marketing leaving us overwhelmingly spoilt when it comes to produce, in turn, the food in our fridges spoils faster than most people would care to admit. An estimated 300kg per person of food is wasted in Australia each year alone.

For Alex Elliot-Howery, co-owner of Sydney’s Cornersmith cafe, the craft of preserving and pickling is about championing sustainability. “I want you to look at pickling as a tool to save food,” she says. “It’s about taking one thing, valuing that ingredient, not letting it go to waste and turning it into something else delicious.”

Elliot-Howery, a self-taught a cook, opened the doors of Cornersmith in 2012 with husband James Grant. A year later, in a response to what she refers to as the “urban disconnect and growing desire to engage with food more”, their Picklery and popular Cooking School opened.

Alex Elliot-Howery, co-owner of Sydney’s Cornersmith cafe, teaches a class on pickling. Photography by Shaney Hudson.

“The skills [taught at the cooking school] have been making a comeback for while,” she says, “but we’re definitely seeing a growing popularity with a broader audience. I think people are looking for ways to connect with food, especially in urban areas, to be more sustainable, more resourceful and less wasteful.”

While the picklery premises is being redeveloped, Cornersmith’s Cooking School has found its way into a quiet corner of event and art space, Carriageworks in Eveleigh, until 18th April. Bookended by a well-loved Saturday farmers’ market and immersive art shows, and supported by an engaged local community, the attendees at the pop-up reflect the audience Cornersmith has attracted over the past nine years.

Along with home cooks, their classes are filled with chefs and cafe owners keen to learn what has made the Cornersmith brand such a success. Courses on offer include Ancient Grain Pasta Making, Fermenting, Pickling and Breadmaking, as well as fan favourite, Tomato Day, where Passata, canned tomatoes and additive free Tomato Ketchup are taught. Elliot-Howery credits the appeal of the hands-on courses – many of which have already sold out – to both the growing curiosity about utilising these traditional methods.

“A lot of cooks don’t trust themselves when learning a new skill, especially something they’re not familiar with like sterilising, heat processing, filling a jar with pickles,” says Alex Elliot-Howery. “So seeing it done in person takes out some of the fear.”

The raw ingredients before the preservation technique begins. Photography by Shaney Hudson.

Beyond their courses, Cornersmith has also published three cookbooks. Their first, a feel-good library of cafe favourites; the second, a seasonal guide to salads and pickles. Their new third cookbook, Use it All: The Cornersmith Guide to A More Sustainable Kitchen (Murdoch Books), released in a post-COVID culinary and publishing environment, is more determined and direct.

“It’s increasingly clear the personal choices we make are political,” they write in the introduction, “amidst our busy lives, how and what we feed ourselves and our loved ones can make a difference.”

Is pickling an act of politics? Slicing peaches and nudging them into glass jars with  a brine of water, vinegar, cloves and sugar might not feel like a definitive statement, but in many ways it is a personal one; embracing seasonality, sustainability and a cultural act of reclaiming a four-thousand-year-old life skill of self-preservation and food security.

“I really want you to understand the craft of pickling, rather than get obsessed about the recipe,” Elliot-Howery tells her class, “because once you know how to do it you don’t need the recipe, or me, anymore.”