The Strange Case of the Pondicherry Pearl

Illustration: egg + pint of beer.

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 thoughts on “The Strange Case of the Pondicherry Pearl”

  1. 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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