Ba-Tampte Half Sours
A food review by Daniel B.
Brooklyn is a modern pickle mecca. McClure’s and Brooklyn Brine may get the spotlight as they bring new life into this New York classic. But Ba-Tampte has been making some amazing pickles for over fifty years, the old fashioned way: fermentation.
Most pickles found on the shelf of a grocery store don’t deserve to bear the name. Clausen’s refrigerator kosher dill spears take the shortcut of starting with vinegar and then adding “natural flavor”. Vlasic’s shelf stable zesty dill spears take that sacrilege and go a step further by adding yellow #5.
Ba-Tampte uses no vinegar in their “original brine” half-sours or garlic dills. These start off as Kirby cucumbers that are transformed into pickles naturally using salt, water and spices. As a fermented pickle they require refrigeration. And because of this and their lack of vinegar, Ba-Tampte’s pickles retain a lot of crunch.
Both of these pickles are magnificent, but I have a newfound appreciation for the half-sour.
For a long time the half-sour was a mystery to me. In the bowlfuls of pickles dropped off on the deli table the half-sours were easy to see. They were the bright green ones that barely tasted like a pickle at all.
Trips to the deli were about big bold flavors of pastrami, rye bread, deli mustard, and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. The half-sour just couldn’t compete. The full-sour was another matter entirely. In a meal that was laden with glorious glistening fat, the intensely sour pickle shocked the taste buds back into action. And while the stomach might have been whimpering at the thought of another beefy bite, after a nibble of pickle the mouth demanded some soothing pastrami.
It’s not uncommon when learning to appreciate a form that the neophyte is attracted to bigger more bombastic flavors. In wine the battle cry is big reds. In cheese its big blues or stinky washed rinds. In spirits it’s big Scotches. But as tastes grow and mature, people begin to notice more nuances and appreciate more subtle graces. So wine lovers find pinot noir. Cheese aficionados may turn onto the grassy undertones of a Saint-Nectaire. And seasoned spirit sippers will discover the wide world of cognacs (if they are lucky).
The same held true for me and pickles.
At first I held disdain for the half-sour because of how little it tasted like pickle. But then I realized how little the full-sours tasted like cucumber. This was a small but important change of perspective that allowed me to appreciate the half-sour in a whole new light. Not all that dissimilar to enjoying a Beaujolais nouveau.
Tasting that point where a fresh cucumber has just crossed the line into something else entirely is actually pretty exciting. It’s even more exciting now in March when the hope of spring is in the air, yet even the first wild ramps are still countless weeks away.
There’s a rumor I have yet to confirm, but it does make some intuitive sense. Since the Ba-Tampte half-sours are fermented, even though they are refrigerated, the pickles can continue to develop a little bit in the jar. So the rumor suggests that jars with clear brine and non-bulging lids the youngest of the half-sours, providing more of that fresh cucumber experience. The flip side of that is if the brine is cloudy and the lid of the jar has a slight bulge, than the pickles will be a bit more sour than just half.
However, I can confirm that Ba-Tampte does indeed mean “Tasty”. The name is Yiddish, and I suppose it could also mean “Delicious” But Yiddish can be an imprecise language. Not all that different from the imprecise nature of a half-sour.
Regardless, it’s a damn fine pickle. And it’s amazing that such a thing can be found in grocery stores across most of the United States. I wish I could say the same thing about pastrami.
About Daniel B.
A west coast transplant now living in Albany, Daniel Berman is applying his communication strategy background to food writing with the ultimate goal of improving the culinary landscape in the Capital Region. He writes the FUSSYlittleBLOG and contributes regularly to All Over Albany.