What is the difference between a Relish and a Pickle: An answer in English?
Not long after starting at Quincey Jones Jelly Preserves I was struck by the thought “What is the difference between a relish and a pickle”? After all the ingredients, cooking methods and uses of Tomato Relish and Green Tomato Pickle are essentially the same, so why is it that one is called a relish and the other a pickle? Up until now a search of the internet will not produce a definitive answer to this question, in fact it will only lead to further confusion as it will introduce the terms chutney, condiments and preserves into the mix. You will also find talk of a green cucumber called a pickle that is the essential ingredient in one of America’s favourite relishes. Yet another search on the net will show that there are recipes which are near identical for green tomato pickles, green tomato relishes and green tomato chutneys so it would seem that there is no difference between them other than the name one chooses to use on any given day. This haphazard approach is at odds with how we work at QJJ so I decided to investigate and see if an answer could be put forward;
Pickle: Vegetables/fruits preserved in salt (as brine) or vinegar. If a major ingredient in the preserve is vinegar or salt then you are making a pickle rather than a relish.
Jam or Jelly: Fruits/vegetables preserved in sugar. If a major ingredient in the preserve is sugar you are probably making a jam or jelly. Jams retain some solid parts of the produce used while jellies are strained so only the liquid is used (the other name for a jelly is a clear set jam). Pectin, either refined or from the fruit, is a key ingredient in jams and jellies.
Relish: vegetables/fruits preserved using either sugar, vinegar or a combination of the two. Essentially, while sugar and vinegar are important for preserving they are not a major ingredient by weight, so you would be making a relish rather than a pickle.
Chutney: vegetables/fruits mixed with spices from the sub-continent. The word and most recipes for chutneys comes from India, so if you are using a lot of produce and spices that originated from the sub-continent and you are probably making a chutney.
Sauce: vegetables/fruit preserved with sugar or vinegar or both that is in a more liquid form than any of the previous four categories. If the final product is runny then you are probably making a sauce.
Preserves: broadly speaking any technique to prolong the life of produce can be considered a preserve; so pickles, relishes, some sauces and most chutneys are preserves. Wine too is a preserve as it is just a way to preserve grapes, while beer is a way to preserve hops and grains.
The definitions are actually pretty straight forward but don’t explain why there are so many recipes that make a mockery of it. When we ask what is happening - we answer “Tradition”. In particular oral and family traditions, as recipes like hair colour are passed down through the generations but the birth, development and spread of the English language is crucial in understanding the current mix up we find ourselves in.
English started as a Germanic language. It was dramatically improved with the introduction of French after the Norman invasion of 1066, it continued to evolve and self-consciously developed under English speaking monarchs (and Shakespeare), then as a maritime super power spread across the world absorbing many words as it went, the British industrial revolution left it as the leading language of commerce and saw a whole new influx of words from other languages. So let’s look at the best single source of the English language.
The Oxford English Dictionary will show that the word Pickle has its roots in Middle German. And it specifically talks of using vinegar or brine (salt) in the process. A look at most pickle recipes will find they use those vegetables and fruits that grow in the colder climes of Northern Europe and that most pickle recipes seem to originate from Northern Europe (German, Dutch. Polish, Scandinavian, Russian and the old Soviet bloc). The reliance on vinegar and salt to preserve food before the mass production of glass jars is understandable as preserving in pottery with vinegar is less likely to kill you than using sugar. Coupled with the fact that the process of creating beet sugar was only invented in France during the early 19th century and prior to that sugar was from cane that originated in the Orient and the trade of which was initially via the spice road though Italy (specifically Genoa). It is hardly surprising that we find Northern Europeans preserving in vinegar and salt rather than sugar.
Compare this to the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for Relish, a word that first appears in Middle English but like many Middle English words originates from the Old French. So the word Relish is more likely to be applied to recipes using produce from the Latin nations of Europe (France, Italy and Spain) and Britain. Again, prior to beet sugar it is more likely that sugar would be found in Southern Europe than the north. Couple this with the fact that these nations have milder winters when it is possible to still grow food to eat it is hardly surprising that they have more recipes with sugar and more likely to be making a preserve with a shorter shelf life than Northern Europe.
So we have Europe where the majority of people cannot read or write passing on recipes by word of mouth where those in Northern Europe were most likely to be using the word pickle while those in Southern Europe using the word relish. While those in the north using longer lasting preserving methods than those in the south and both using different produce to preserve. The people themselves are not travelling far from home and recipes aren’t being shared that much. Of course, this doesn’t apply to the ruling class who could read (or employ people who could) and there were royal cook books and cooks who had knowledge of different recipes and produce from around the known world. The oldest cookbook in English is ‘The Forme of Cury’ from the royal court of 1390 A.D. In it the authors not only talk of cooking traditions from other European countries and ancient times but the recipes themselves use spices from the Orient, so as far back as 1390 the ruling class of Britain is absorbing cookery terms from across Europe, the Middle East and the Orient.
Over time as Europeans spread out, the middle class grew, trade grew and more cultures were discovered that people shared their cultures and this included cooking. Therefore, it is easy to imagine the start of our current confusion because as people shared recipes it would be easy to take a recipe from one culture but give it the name that you have always used, so pickles become relishes and vice versa. And this growth kept getting faster right through the 15th to 18th Centuries. Of course the biggest and fastest mixture of European culture in an English context came with the increased European settling of North America during the 18th and 19th Century.
It was by now the time of the industrial revolution, mass production and the start of universal education. So it was now possible to make and sell preserves, something we love at QJJ, but here is where marketing gets involved. It is easy to imagine during the 19th and early 20th Century when someone wanted to sell a relish in North Dakota they would call it a pickle (North Dakota having many German speaking immigrants), conversely selling a pickle commercial amongst the Italian immigrants of New York or the French of Montreal would likely be more successful if it was renamed as a relish. The industrial revolution and universal education also saw the growth of publishing and reading, which meant that cook books were no longer the preserve of just the rich. It meant that families could now preserve their recipes by writing them down.
The word relish of course has two other meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary. One of which is to enjoy something, as in “I will relish eating this lemon chutney.” While another meaning is to refer to any spicy condiment added to a meal as a relish. I could not find out which came first, using the word to describe a specific recipe or as a general description of any condiment; though I strongly suspect the former use came first given the French root for relish is the word for remainder and so describes a process of preserving leftovers. Given these two other uses of the word it is easy to imagine how people could mistakenly use the word instead of pickle and even easier to imagine how someone in marketing would rather call their product a relish.
So today we have people across the globe with their own tradition of using either the word pickle or relish to describe a particular preserve. These variables could include their own lineage, where they currently live, where their ancestors use to live, who in the family first decided to name it, what the person who shared the recipe called it, what a manufacturer decided to call it and what English they or their ancestors were first exposed to. A huge range of variables has led to the current mix up, which in many ways mirrors the development of the English language, but there is no need for it to continue.
There is a discernible difference between a relish and a pickle. The important difference being the way in which they go about preserving, whether it is mostly with vinegar/salt (pickles), sugar (jams and jellies, relish) or a mixture of the two (relish). Still we are currently not far short of the 1000 year anniversary of the Norman invasion, closing in on 600 years since Gutenberg’s printing press, a bit over 500 years since the discovery of the America’s by Columbus, around 350 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution, just over 200 years since the invention of mass food preservation and nearing a century since the start of mass marketing. There is a lot of history that has gone into the development of English and the naming of preserves, that is a lot of tradition to try and change. It is probably too late but hopefully the next time you ask yourself “Why is that called a pickle and not a relish?” you will have some idea of what has happened and secretly know which is the correct term. Who knows, next time you write out a family recipe you may even be moved to change its name and start a whole new tradition.
Quincey Jones Jelly Preserves Co