Wes Mattern slid sideways into pickles. First he was a high-end timber-frame house and barn builder -- if you've seen the PowerHouse Mall, you've seen his work. When he retired from that, he got into vegetable farming. And when that got a little too cutthroat for him, well, he'd been making pickles from leftover cucumbers, and people seemed to go for them.
"Pickles were an afterthought, but people liked them," he says. "My initial investment in the crack cocaine that I put in the first batches has paid huge dividends!"
You should know that Wes has a dry, off-kilter sense of humor.
He also has 12 children, ranging in age from almost 50 to 12. "You might put in your story, ‘Obviously, he doesn’t make pickles all the time,’" he helpfully suggests.
And one other thing you should know: Wes's pickles--which you'll find under the Mt. Pleasant Farm banner at the Norwich Farmer's Market, the one with the big green pickle on it--really are superb: crisp, with tangy layers of flavor that cascade down your throat. He makes dills and bread-and-butter and then a spicier version of the bread-and-butter.
The secret? First, the cucumbers themselves. He grows his own--though his crop failed this year because of the drought--or buys locally as much as he can. "Part of the problem [with buying mass-produced cucumbers] is everything is harvested by machine--so they’ve bred indestructible cucumbers with no regard for flavor or skin texture. You’ve got a bomb-proof cucumber that tastes like nothing."
Then he pickles them promptly, so they don't have a chance to get tough. And when he boils them, he does it carefully. "I get asked all the time how I keep them so crunchy. Most people are surprised pickles can be crisp. That's because most people at home boil their pickles to death. The secret is, don't."
Finally, of course, there's the brine. The dills are pretty straightforward: ground mustard, garlic, dill, salt. The bread-and-butter? He eyes me warily. "You going to give away my recipe?" he asks, but then relents. A little. "That’s an exotic mixture: the high notes are cloves, which is a surprise to people, and a lot of sugar and vinegar. A lot of sugar. If you’re watching carbs, this is not the pickle for you."
One of the treats of hanging around Wes's stall is watching people come up and try a sample. They tend to have two reactions: either they take a bite and their eyes widen and they smile, or they take a bite and nod their heads solemnly. Either way, they usually end up buying a jar.
Then there are the kids. "I love seeing them come up with these excited faces. You’d think it was Christmas morning, they're so happy they can come to see the pickle man," Wes says. "But honestly. They’re just pickles. Or there was this woman, she said, 'Oh my gosh, I’ve found you at last!' I can’t imagine being that excited about pickles, but people are. And that makes it fun. It makes it all worth it."
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