My grandad was brilliant. He had a big round belly, and he gave amazing cuddles, and he was warm and funny and kind. He was a total wind-up, and I believed everything he told me. He was wonderful. He died when I was almost 9, on a Thursday in May, in front of Ready, Steady, Cook. Sometimes I am near men on the train who smell like him, and it’s still like a punch in the stomach.
He used to make the best pickled onions. Spicy, and crunchy, and perfect. When he died, suddenly if not exactly unexpectedly, none of us knew how he made them, except that he used pickling vinegar and added extra chillies. So we searched for the next best thing, and lived with disappointing, soft, bland onions for years.
Then, in the autumn of 2013, we saw pickling onions in Sainsburys and decided to give it a go. We didn’t know what we were doing, so we googled it, and read a bunch of recipes until we found one that mum thought sounded about right. We didn’t bother blanching them to peel them, just powered through and cried a lot. We used Sarsons pickling vinegar rather than malt, because we saw it in the shop and because mum thought she remembered grandad using it. Waiting to try them was torture. We put them in the loft to make sure nobody was tempted. We opened the first jar at Christmas, and it was like winding back the clock. Perfect.
Since then, we’ve made them every year. We roped a friend in, once, when she came to visit and it happened to be time to do them. We guarded them jealously at first, but now give jars to people we know will especially appreciate them. This year, we’ve only made seven (albeit big) jars, because we’ve still got quite a few of last year’s.
It’s a time-consuming process, it leaves me with burning eyes and hands that won’t stop smelling of onions for days, it means we have a corner of the loft full of jars. But it’s worth it for every little crunchy joy.