Amy has always been my favourite March sister. Yes, I know. How can I, a writer, continue to love her after she burned Jo’s manuscript? But, as a reformed brat myself, I “get” her. Amy March rules.
Except perhaps for her pickled lime obsession.
Apparently all the other girls were into it:
“Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it, too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else….If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime; if she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck.” —Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.
But why? I’ve always had a hell of a job understanding what these children could have been thinking. Perhaps they aren’t really pickled, I thought. Perhaps they’re preserved with sugar like dates. Perhaps they’re a type of sweet.
Nope. Here’s the recipe:
1 sterile 500g glass jar
4 fresh limes
metric fucktonne lot)
Extra lime juice if necessary
And that’s it.
So, not a sweet treat, then. And, since it seemed unlikely these girls just really, really cared about preventing scurvy, I was going to have to try them for myself.
Using a sharp knife, cut the tops and bottoms off the limes, then cut x shapes into each one, but only 3/4 of the way through. Like this:
Pack the Xs with lots and lots of salt until they look like this:
Put the limes into the jar, pressing them until they fit and they release some of their juices. Seal and leave at room temperature for about 12 hours.
When the 12 hours are up, open the jar and press the limes again. Afterward, mine looked like this:
Do this once or twice a day until the limes are covered in juice. After three days, if there still isn’t enough juice, add enough to cover.
Chill in the fridge for a minimum of 1 month before consuming.
The recipe gives no guidance whatsoever about what to do with your limes once the month is up, so I experimented. First, I tried one straight out of the jar, but, as you might expect, it was salty as hell.
Before I go on, allow me to communicate my regret over naming my limes Kermit, because after a month, they really did resemble a jar of dead frogs floating in formaldehyde. I was pretty sure they’d gone off but, after a rinse, they didn’t look too bad.
Next, I tried one rinsed. They were still really salty, so I rinsed them again.
The purpose of the salt is to make them less tart. This worked. They weren’t too sour, but the saltiness was very unpleasant. I think this would work better if the salt was rinsed away after the first day like in modern recipes. Then the limes could be pickled in their own juice.
I can’t imagine little girls enjoying these, even in the Victorian era. I know for a fact there were sugary treats available for a similar price, so what gives? Did they dry them first? Was there a more extensive rinsing process? I wish I knew the answers.
I am reliably informed (by Delia Smith) that you can use pickled limes in small quantities in Asian cuisine, so perhaps that’s the best thing to do with them in this form. We didn’t like them on their own.
Here is a picture of my 8 yr old nearly trying one:
If you try this, if you have better luck or any ideas or theories at all, please let me know in the comments here or on other social media. Until then, the mystery (of why little girls would want to trade pickled limes) remains.