Beer history

The Strange Case of the Pondicherry Pearl

UPDATE 02.04.2017: Please bear in mind that this was published on 1 April before citing it anywhere or, indeed, before ruining a perfectly good pint with a pickled egg.

Have you ever put a pickled egg in your pint? It turns out to be a great British tradition with colonial roots that might be ripe for revival in the craft beer era.

We first came across an intriguing reference to this practice in a 1922 booklet, State Management of Public Houses, held in the collection at the London School of Economics library, and written by a social reformer called Leslie Townes Hope:

Extract from an old book -- OBVIOUSLY FAKE!
LSE main collection PN6149.P5 F88, p.15.

As long-time pickled egg lovers this grabbed our attention and derailed our research for a bit. We found a few passing newspaper references…

Newspaper extract
Dorset Observer, 06/05/1891, p.8.

…and then this passage in The Overseas Household Companion, published annually from 1856 until 1900 and intended to assist women who found themselves posted with their families to India and other colonial outposts:

Cookbook extract
Vol II, 1869 edn., p.208. Via Google Books.

When you think about it, it’s not so strange — Devon white ale was brewed with eggs, for example, and egg nog is very popular. But hard-boiled and pickled? That is something a bit different. A bit desperate, even.

With the Bengal and Pondicherry connections we searched the newspaper archives again and discovered, we think, why this practice died out:

Newspaper extract
Framlingham Gazette, 28/04/1912, p.1.

Thereafter, the odd reference to the practice of putting pickled eggs into beer is always in the context of the death of Robert Thompson with increasing amounts of chuckling over the state of pub food as time passed and the tragedy receded.

Of course, 80 years on, with food hygiene practice much improved and the chances of there being any arsenic involved much minimised, we had to give it a go, and so went to the one pub in town where we know we can reliably get pickled eggs. For obvious reasons we found a quiet corner for our experiment. Brace yourself, here it comes:

A pickled egg in a pint of beer.

We have to say, much to our surprise, this was amazing. It’s long been known that adding a touch of balsamic vinegar to a relatively bland beer can fool the palate into thinking it’s something much more interesting and complex, and this did exactly the same thing, giving just enough acid to, in effect, simulate prolonged maturation. A very ordinary pint of bitter tasted like some exotic stock ale 30 years old, the vinegar very much a background flavour — less extreme, indeed, than some Belgian beers with a similar character. And the egg, at the end, had magically lost a little of its rubberiness and tasted more like one freshly boiled.

So, next time you’re in the pub and you see that jar on the back shelf, give it a go! (But don’t blame us if you don’t like it.)

4 replies on “The Strange Case of the Pondicherry Pearl”

It was once common to add eggshells to fermenting beer to prevent it going sour. Probably the source of the shells was the large number of eggs that went for pickling. The Scottish Brewing Archive has a note which seems to imply that eggshells would be stuffed into empty beer casks pending their return to the brewery.

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