Pickle people Local picklemakers chill out with their products

Nathan Albertson (inset) started making pickles while he was running a sandwich stand. When people started commenting more on the pickles than the sandwiches, the idea for the Charleston Pickle Company was born.

Can’t put up with the heat? Neither can some picklemakers.

Among local picklers are a few who do the brining of their cucumbers and veggies the cold pack way, without preservatives or processing in a boiling water bath.

Their methods turn out pickles with bright, fresh flavors and a bit of snap in every bite.

The newest entry is Charleston Pickle Company, which started showing up in Piggly Wiggly and several small markets within the past year. Owner Nathan Albertson, 40, says the company is starting to hit its stride with consumers, and thus, sales.

Two big milestones are getting into the Piggly Wiggly warehouse, which means he doesn’t have to distribute to individual stores; and becoming the chosen one in the Charleston Riverdogs’ Pickle Dog, in which a split pickle serves as the “bun” for the hot dog.

Other picklemakers have been around awhile, doing business mainly at area farmers markets.

One familiar face, often shaded by her trademark hat, is Raychelle E. Bennett. You’ll find her Saturdays at the Charleston Farmers Market at the Fresh Pickles Fresh Produce booth offering tastings of her popular kosher “Cool Down” dills (which can also be had spicy) and other pickles. Bennett also works the Daniel Island Farmers Market on Thursdays and once a month at Bishop Gadsden.

Fresh Pickle Works is another seller at the Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Edisto farmers markets. Alexis Kong-Van de Wiel and her husband, Ludo, make a variety of pickles and pickled vegetables (okra, beets, collard greens, etc.), which also are available at Things Caribbean, her West Ashley retail store.

All are dedicated users of produce from Lowcountry farms.

Albertson’s “cold pour” pickles had roots in the Charleston Farmers Market as well. The chef, husband and father was running a stand called “Melt” that featured open-faced sandwiches. He needed pickle slices to go with his sandwiches and their assertive cheeses, such as goat, brie and extra-sharp cheddar.

After much Internet research and trial-and-error, Albertson came up with his own recipe. The brine is pretty simple stuff: white vinegar, garlic, a touch of salt (1 tablespoon per 5-gallon bucket), dill, turmeric and whole peppercorns.

When people and chefs started commenting specifically about the pickles, “that planted the seed” to start commercial production, he says.

The result is a tart, bracing Kosher dill pickle that speaks to bold palates and may cause involuntary “vinegar face,” says Albertson, a Johnson & Wales grad who has been cooking more than 25 years.

The secret lies in the pH balance, their high acidity and no chemicals, he says.

Now he believes he is the only commercial packer in the country doing cold pour pickles, which are shelf-stable without refrigeration until opened. Then they are best eaten within a month.

He has found that about 40 percent of people like eating his pickles directly from the jar. The other 60 percent prefer them with meat or cheese that mellows their taste considerably, he says.

Natalie Santiago of the Isle of Palms happened by The Sprout in Mount Pleasant, where Albertson makes the pickles, one day last week. She had only recently tried the pickles and told him she was an instant convert.

“These are strong but very fresh. They have a really unique taste,” she said. “These I can eat straight out of the jar.”

Albertson is content for the time being to grow the business at the right pace, “keep it tight and do it right,” he says. Production is up to nearly 50 cases, or 600 jars, each week. Find individual, 16-ounce jars priced about $3.99.

Visit charlestonpickle company.com.

Kong-Van de Wiel never had a taste for pickles until she met Jack Kahn, the “Pickle Man,” back in the early 1980s. She was a manager for Burger King restaurants and he would make the rounds in search of plastic food buckets. Kahn had a pickle company in North Charleston that sold pickles to local restaurants in 5-gallon containers.

When she opened her own restaurant in 1991, Taste of Jamaica west of the Ashley, “he was a big help to me,” she says. The two became friends.

Kong-Van de Wiel’s restaurant closed after five years and she began helping the aging Kahn run his business and do the brining. She eventually took it over in 2001, deciding to focus on retail sales instead of restaurants. Today, her garage serves as her “pickle factory.”

She takes pride in blending her own spices that give the pickles her special touch. Her arsenal includes cloves, allspice, cinnamon, bay leaf, coriander, dill, turmeric and fresh and dried garlic.

“But starting with a good fresh (vegetable) is the key,” she says. She says she’ll pickle “anything I can get my hands on.”

Pints are priced at $5 and quarts are $8.

For more information, visit Things Caribbean at 644 Ashley Hall Road or call 469-1228.

Bennett also learned from Kahn, who is now deceased, and worked with Kong-Van de Wiel for a time. But she’s self-taught as well. She has been a regular at the Charleston Farmers Market for eight years.

Her pickles begin their cold brining 48 hours before market. She says they can hold up under refrigeration for four to six months, ideally kept at 45 degrees.

In addition to kosher dills, Bennett sells refrigerator-style sweet bread-and-butter pickles, garlic half sours, salsa and occasionally pickled vegetables. Her vegetables are grown by Freeman Farm on Johns Island, and she uses them exclusively as long as they are in season.

Her pickles are available in pints ($7 plain, $8 spicy) or quarts ($9 plain, $10 spicy).

Bennett does not have a website, but will take orders by phone: 767-0055.