In a real pickle, and loving it
For the owners of two area businesses, everything's coming up cucumbers
GREENFIELD -- Dan Rosenberg, the brains and brawn behind Real Pickles, is a slight guy with shiny dark hair and quick blue eyes. Even at 29, he looks like he could be president of his high school math club. Five years ago, Rosenberg began shopping at the Davis Square farmers' market in Somerville, close to where he was living at the time, and started putting up produce in his kitchen. After various jobs teaching, working with growers, and managing a retail bakery, the Brown graduate was searching for a meaningful livelihood. He never considered pickles -- either as a job or a means to social change. ''While I was canning produce, there was a moment when I realized that pickles could actually promote the values of a sustainable regional food system," he says. ''The idea of being able to supply fresh, locally grown produce in the middle of the winter was something to get excited about."
Rosenberg now makes his living as the owner of Real Pickles. Also in the business is Jamaica Plain-based entrepreneur Stewart Golomb, brewer of MoonBrine Pickles, who is just as devoted to the craft. Both begin with small cucumbers and turn out delightfully unpredictable small-batch products that taste as if they might have been made in a cellar in Eastern Europe. In delicatessens, these go by the name ''half-sours" or sour pickles.
Supermarket shelves are lined with labels such as Vlasic, Cain's, Mt. Olive, and Cascadian Farm, which contain vinegar-soaked dill pickles that are a long way from the wild-tasting spears found in an old-fashioned delicatessen. Real Pickles' and MoonBrine's carefully brewed and fermented products are complex and nuanced, alive in their cloudy brine. In New England, if you want something made close to home, these are the only choice. Everything else comes from New York.
Traditional dill pickles are simply raw cucumbers fermented at room temperature in a spicy salt brine until crisp and pleasantly sour. As soon as they sour, the pickles must be stored in a cool place to slow down the fermentation (Old World-style pickles are always in the refrigerator section of markets).
From the beginning, Rosenberg knew that he wanted to use local, organically grown ingredients. He decided to sell the pickles only in the Northeast, no matter what the demand. ''Even a pickle can be political," says Rosenberg, who works out of the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center in Greenfield. ''The big idea is to provide high quality, healthy, locally grown food to New Englanders even after our growing season is over."
The first winter making pickles in his Somerville apartment, he says, ''I looked through books, searching for recipes and techniques and making lists of possible spices. Everything had to be considered: salt concentrations, length of fermentation, spice combinations." After four months, with many failed batches, he decided on a mixture of chili flakes, black peppercorns, bay leaves, fennel seeds, cinnamon sticks, garlic, and dill.
That May, Rosenberg moved into a renovated barn in Montague, found a jar distributor in Everett and local farmers willing to pick young cukes. An Amherst restaurant let the eager entrepreneur process pickles in the early mornings.
Three years later, Rosenberg makes 11,000 pounds of dill pickles annually and sells them in stores around New England. His line now also includes sauerkraut and kimchee. He works feverishly from July through early September with his partner, Addie Holland, and a few hired helpers. The crew slices and packs freshly picked cucumbers with brine and spices in 55-gallon plastic barrels, where they ferment for five days.
''The pickles are selling really well, but there's still a lot of education that goes along with this kind of product," says Rosenberg. ''The pickles taste different from batch to batch and from jar to jar, and they change as they continue to slowly ferment in the refrigerator. The sell-by date is a year and a half from the start of fermentation, but I think they're good even after that. The natural lactic acid they produce is just an amazing preservative."
Also obsessed about his product is Golomb of MoonBrine Pickles, who says that he began pickling ''to make something totally delicious that I love. That's why I'm doing it. The fact that they're good for you and a healthy snack -- that's just a bonus."
All last summer, Golomb sold pickles at farmers' markets around Boston. One week late in the season at the Harvard Square market, Golomb stood in the cold sunshine with his wife, Sandi Quatrale, and 8-month-old son Zeqe, hawking jars of his bold-flavored sours. Boyish with graying hair and a bristly goatee, Golomb, 42, taught third grade for 10 years until 2001, when he quit the classroom for a leap of faith into what he calls ''pickle madness."
He can convince even the reluctant to try a spear. ''Step right up, fresh pickles here," Golomb called out to anybody within earshot. All day shoppers crunched on pickle samples while Golomb launched into his spiel. ''On the right are our super dill pickles. They have a nostalgic taste. They taste like Grandma's. They taste like old times. They taste like the Jewish pickles on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. On the left we have the pretty hot pickles. They're made without dill and they are hot. They'll catch you off guard if you're not careful. Oh, and whatever you do, don't throw out the brine."
MoonBrine Pickles are made year-round at Nuestra Culinary Ventures, a community kitchen in Jamaica Plain. Depending on the season, Golomb's cucumbers come from Western Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, and parts south. ''Florida is as far south as I'll go," says Golomb. ''Mexico is just too far away, and the quality isn't as good."
Working by himself, Golomb scrubs cucumbers, grates fresh horseradish, chops onions, garlic, and dill, and measures spices. He uses 5-gallon buckets for his salt brine and lets the pickles ferment for a couple of weeks. ''I'm going for the perfect pickle every time. You know, I taste them constantly. A year later and I'm still neurotic about how they taste. Even at home, I'll go down and pull a couple out of the refrigerator just to make sure that they're still good."
Both pickle men have found all sorts of uses in the kitchen for their pickles and brine.
''The brine is a key part of our whole being," says Golomb. ''It is its own product -- a fantastic salad dressing, great in bloody Marys or dirty martinis, great as a marinade. Athletes drink it as a sports drink."
In Montague in the warm months, the Real Pickles pair tends a large vegetable garden. Holland's favorite lunch of a tomato and cheese sandwich on sourdough always has pickles on the side. Rosenberg adds chopped spears to his potato or egg salad.
Both Rosenberg and Golomb know that the mere mention of pickles can make people laugh. As Golomb reflects on his career since leaving the classroom, he says, ''Pickles are funny. Even the word pickle is funny. They're innately funny, and the people who love pickles are funny. With everything so dang serious in this world, it's nice that you can at least eat with a light heart."
MoonBrine Pickles are at Lionette's Market, 577 Tremont St., Boston, 617-778-0360; Savenor's Market, 160 Charles St., Boston, 617-723-6328; A. Russo and Sons, 560 Pleasant St., Watertown, 617-923-1500. Real Pickles are at John Dewar & Co., 753 Beacon St., Newton, 617-964-357; Harvest Co-op Market, 581 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-661-1581.