I am used to pickles that hit you in your face with their intensity. Whether they are whey-fermented, salt-cured or pickled in a vinegar solution, the pickles I make are so unapologetically pickled, you might as well just drink their pickling juice and call the doctor right away. But Beatrice’s Icelandic pickled beets are nothing like the pickles I love. They are mildly acidic, just the right amount of sweet, and almost completely untouched by spices. In other words, these Icelandic pickled beets taste so strongly of beets, there’s no confusing them for anything else.
And yet, I love them just as much for what they represent as I do for their taste.
Beatrice was G’s maternal grandmother. I never met her, but I heard all about her strength, frugality, and uncompromising opinions. I heard about her childhood growing up in an Icelandic family in Manitoba, and her rebellious decision to marry a British man. I heard about her cooking, and her ability to make more with less. And above all else, I heard about the love she showed to her family.
I heard about it all when G’s mother told me how she made her Icelandic pickled beets.
Because there it was, the love you feel for your family, as pure and innate as the desire of water to flow downward.
And then there was the love you feel for your partner, complex and multifaceted and as raw as the attraction of a bee to honey.
And then, if you’re lucky, behind it all hid the love you feel for your partner’s family – conflicted and forgiving and respectful, as quiet as the appreciation a kitten feels towards the sun as it basks in its rays.
Until I met G and his parents, I never really felt this love… But now, as I remember the taste of G’s grandmother’s Icelandic pickled beets, passed on to me by his mother – sweet, unadulterated and unapologetic beet flavour, only slightly mitigated by a handful of pickling spice – I realize just how comforting that love can be.
I adapted Beatrice’s Icelandic pickles just a tad to ensure that they be safe for canning. However, to honour the true legacy and devil-may-care attitude this recipe has towards measurements, I bring you both versions – the safe-for-canning Icelandic pickled beets, and G’s grandmother’s original, refrigerator-only recipe. The latter is a lot less heavy on the vinegar, and tastes even more like a beet.
Because sometimes, you just want to eat a pickled beet that tastes like its origins: earth, sugar, family and love.
Beatrice's Icelandic pickled beets
- 5 cups prepared beets washed, ends and roots left untouched
- 1 cup white vinegar
- 3 cups water
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1.5 tbsp pickling spice
Safe-for-canning version (recipe adapted very slightly from Bernardin):
- 5 cups 1250 ml prepared beets
- 1 1/4 cups 312 ml white vinegar
- 1 cup 125 ml water
- 1 cup 125 ml brown sugar
- 1.5 tbsp pickling spice
Place beets in a large saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cover with lid and simmer 40 minutes until beets test tender with fork. Drain, and rinse under cold water. Wearing plastic gloves, peel beets.
In a small saucepan, bring water, vinegar and pickling spice to a boil. Cover and continue cooking for 15 additional minutes.
In your clean jars or in a large casserole dish, arrange alternating layers of beets and brown sugar. Cover with brine.
Cover with lid, and let cool. Transfer to fridge, and let flavours meld for at least 24 hours. The beets will be ready to eat then, though their flavour will intensify a bit with every day.
Place 3 clean 500 ml mason jars on a rack in a boiling water canner. Cover jars with water and heat to a simmer. Set screw bands aside, and immerse sealing discs in hot, but not boiling water. Keep jars and lids sealing discs hot until ready to use.
In a small saucepan, bring water, vinegar, brown sugar and pickling spice to a boil. Cover and continue cooking for 15 additional minutes.
Pack beets into hot jars to within 3/4 inch (2 cm) of the top. Add hot pickling liquid to cover beets, leaving 1/2 inch (1 cm) of headspace at the top of the jar. Cover with hot sealing discs, and then screw bands just enough to meet resistance (do not tighten all the way).
Return filled jar to rack in canner. Repeat for remaining beets and hot brine. When canner is filled, ensure that all jars are covered by at least one inch of water. Cover canner and bring water to full rolling boil before starting to count processing time. Boil filled jars for 30 minutes.
When processing time is complete, remove canner lid, wait 5 minutes, then remove jars without tilting and place them upright on a protected work surface. Cool upright, undisturbed for 24 hours. DO NOT RETIGHTEN screw bands.