Simnel Cake


A Simnel cake is a type of fruit cake that contains plenty of marzipan and is eaten at Easter, although it used to be specifically associated with Mothering Sunday. When folk were fasting during Lent, Mothering Sunday, appearing in the middle of the fast, offered a respite from 40 days of religious austerity.

Mothering Sunday occurs on the fourth Sunday of Lent; a special day when people visited their mother church or cathedral. Don’t confuse Mothering Sunday with Mothers’ Day; it is only in the last century that this day is associated with showing enforced appreciation to our mums (though I assume that you met up with your mother on return to your original diocese).

Like most British food eaten during winter and early spring, the Simnel cake contains lots of dried fruit, but it is much lighter than boozy Christmas cake and contains a layer or marzipan both on top and within, and is decorated with eleven marzipan balls, each symbolising Jesus’s disciples (minus the treacherous Judas of course).

To trace the origin of Simnel cake, you need to go right back to mediaeval times where it began life as a yeast-leavened bread, which may or may not have been enriched. This doesn’t sound that much like a special bread, you may think, but what made it special is that it made out of the highest quality flour possible; simnel derives from the Latin simila – the whitest and finest of flours.

Fast forward to the 17th and 18th centuries, and the bread mixture had been swapped for a pudding batter, not dissimilar to spotted dick, enriched with dried fruit, spices and almonds. It would be boiled like a pudding. When cooked, it was wrapped in pastry, glazed with egg and baked until a good hard crust formed. It would be like the Scottish black bun, a traditional Christmas food north of the border.

It is only when you get to the tail end of the 19th century that it starts to look like something we would recognise as a cake, though surprisingly it is not until the 20th century that the familiar marzipan layers and decorative disciples appear.

Simnel cakes themselves seem to be disappearing from our Easter tables altogether and are getting more and more difficult to find in British bakeries. Below is the recipe I use – I can’t claim it as my own, but I don’t know where I got it from, so if you recognise it let me know, you know I always like to credit my sources!

This is a very straight-forward cake mixture made using the all-in-one method; it is very important that you use very soft butter so that the cake batter creams quickly without developing the gluten too much. If you don’t want to make your own marzipan, you can buy some ready-made, but I do urge you to make your own, it really is worth the (really quite little) effort required. The marzipan recipe below is different to my previously published one and I think much better. I shall try to remember to update the other post.


For the cake:

225 g softened butter

225 g caster sugar

4 eggs

225 g plain flour

2 tsp ground cinnamon

zest of 2 oranges

zest of 2 lemons

325 g mixed fruit (currants, sultanas, currants)

125 g glacé cherries, quartered or left whole

500 g orange marzipan (see below)

icing sugar for dusting

apricot jam

1 beaten egg


Begin by greasing and lining an 8-inch cake tin and preheating your oven to 150°C.

In a large bowl, beat together the softened butter, caster sugar, eggs, flour, cinnamon and zests. Using a hand mixer, beat together until smooth. Now fold in the mixed fruit and cherries with a spatula or wooden spoon.

Spoon half of the mixture into your tin and level it off. Take a third of your marzipan and roll it out into a circle the same size as the tin, trimming away any untidy bits. Use a little icing sugar to roll the marzipan out, just like you would use flour to roll out pastry.


Lay the marzipan in the tin and then spoon and scrape the remainder of the cake batter on top of that. Level off with your spatula and make an indentation in the centre, so that the cake doesn’t rise with too much of a peak.

Bake for 2 ¼ to 2 ½ hours. Use a skewer to check it is done. Cool on a rack for about 30 minutes before removing the tin and greaseproof paper.

When cold, roll out half of the marzipan in a circle slightly larger than the cake – the best way to do this is to use the outside edge of the tin it was baked in as a template.

Brush the top of the cake with some apricot jam (if it is very thick, you may want to warm some with a little water in a pan) and lay the marzipan on top, then brush the marzipan with the beaten egg. Divide the remaining marzipan and trimmings into 11 equally-sized balls and arrange them in a circle. Brush those with egg too and glaze the top using a chef’s flame torch (or a very hot grill).


For the marzipan:

90 g caster sugar

140 g icing sugar

220 g ground almonds

grated zest of an orange

1 beaten egg

Mix all of the ingredients except for the egg in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the egg. Using a mixer or your hand, form a dough. Knead in the bowl until smooth, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.



Filed under Britain, cake, Easter, Festivals, food, Recipes, Uncategorized

Welsh Rarebit & Locket’s Savoury

Straight off the heels of my last post, two more savouries.

Welsh Rarebit

Apparently, it is incorrect to call it a rarebit, it is a “false etymological refinement”; it should be called Welsh rabbit. Why? Well it’s a bit of a dour Welsh joke. The poor Welsh peasants of yore named this cheesy mixture – which is high in fat and protein – a ‘rabbit’ to make up for the fact they couldn’t get hold of any meat; they were not allowed hunt themselves, or even to eat the unwanted rabbits caught in hunts by nobles. Actually, no one really knows where it comes from, but that explanation will do me. See this post for more on hunting.

There are, in fact, three types of rabbit/rarebit: Welsh, English and Scottish. After the success of the integration of Welsh rarebit into posh folks’ savoury courses, the rest of the kingdom tried to jump on the rarebit bandwagon. I don’t know why, because they have many perfectly good savouries themselves. I have made these other rarebits, and they are pale imitations. In fact, the English rarebit was so disgusting, I ended up dry-retching into a sink, and I have a pretty strong constitution as I’m sure you all know by now! English rarebit is a slice of toast, with a glass of red wine thrown on it, topped with sliced cheese and grilled. The combination of soggy toast, congealed cheese and the breath-taking hit of hot wine in my mouth and nostrils tipped me over the edge.

Scottish rarebit is more sensible with the ingredients, but tricky to fathom:

Toast a piece of bread very nicely on both sides, butter it, cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the bread.

That recipe comes from 1747, and I have never worked out how you toast a piece of cheese on both sides without disaster!

These days we are used to a very thick cheese topping piled on our toast for Welsh rarebit, but traditionally it is quite liquid, soaking into the toast as it grilled. The base of the rarebit should be ale or stout, but the result is very rich, so if you prefer, cut it with some milk. This recipe makes quite a lot of the mixture, but if you don’t use it all, don’t worry as keeps in the fridge for five or six days.


50g butter

45g plain flour

250ml ale or milk or a mixture, warmed

250g mature Cheddar cheese, grated

1 tbs Worcestershire sauce (or 1/2 tbs of mushroom ketchup)

½ tbs English mustard

black pepper

salt (if needed)

1 slice of toast per person


Melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour to make a roux. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring occasionally until the roux goes a pale brown colour.

Using a small whisk, beat in around one third of the ale. Once smooth, add another third and beat again before mixing in the last of it. To avoid lumps, make sure the ale is fully mixed into the roux before adding. Simmer gently for a few minutes, beating occasionally.

Remove from the heat and mix in the cheddar and seasonings except the salt. Taste and add salt if required – usually the cheese and other seasonings are salty enough. Return to a very low heat and stir until the cheese has melted into the smooth sauce. Be careful not to heat it too much as the melted cheese will split.

The topping can be used straight away or poured into a tub and refrigerated – the mixture can be moulded onto the toast not unlike cheesy Play-Doh.

Make your toast and spread, or mould, on the rarebit mixture. Make sure the mixture covers the whole of the slice, right to the edges. Place under a hot grill and toast until bubbling and the colour of a deep golden brown.

I like to eat Welsh rarebit with a rocket or watercress salad simply dressed with cider vinegar and salt, a dollop of chutney and a glass of the ale I made it with.

Variation: Locket’s Savoury

This might even be better than rarebit! Apparently, this dish comes from Locket, a Westminster gentleman’s club, but I can find no trace of the club on the interweb, so I’m taking that with a pinch of salt. The original recipe just asks for one to cover toast with pear and watercress, top with slices of Stilton and grill, but I think it works better with a roux-based sauce like the rarebit, which smothers the pears. I also prefer to serve the watercress as a salad leaf alongside grapes and walnuts, but feel free to pop it under the cheese mixture.


50g butter

50g plain flour

250ml milk, warmed

250g blue Stilton, grated

black pepper

half a ripe pear per person, peeled cored and thinly sliced

1 slice of toast per person


Make the topping just as for Welsh rarebit, grinding a good amount of black pepper.

Make some good, crisp toast, lay the pear slices over the toast, then liberally spread or mould on the cheesy topping.

Grill until a deep brown and serve with the salad.



Filed under Britain, cooking, Dairy, food, General, history, Nineteenth Century, Recipes, The Edwardians, The Victorians


About five years ago, a reader asked if I could write about savouries, that now forgotten course served up towards the end of a Victorian or Edwardian meal. Well I’ve finally pulled my finger out and written one, so here we go:

The savoury course used to be extremely popular; a delicious morsel, which was salty, creamy and spicy, serving as a digestive after a rich meal, either as a final course, or before a sweet. What often happened was that the gentlemen ate their savouries and went off to drink whiskey and play bar billiards, and the ladies had their sweets and swished off to the withdrawing room for cards, chats and sherry; there were no non-binary genders allowed here, let me tell you.

I’m a big fan of the savoury course and I often include one in my supper clubs and pop-ups. They had gone out of fashion by the mid-twentieth century, the only real survivor being the cheeseboard.

Potted chicken livers

Savouries have of course lived on as first courses, canapés, teatime snacks and light lunches, and you will have eaten some of them, and many have already appeared on the blog. Delicious morsels like devilled kidneys, Welsh rarebit, potted chicken livers, potted cheese, Patum peperium, rillettes, angels & devils on horseback and sardines on toast have all been served up by Yours Truly at some point. Two of my favourites are Scotch woodcock – a spiced anchovy butter served on toast covered with a creamy, savoury custard – and Locket’s savoury, a slice of toast topped with ripe sliced pears, wilted watercress, and a thick blue cheese sauce which is then grilled, rather like Welsh rarebit. Delicious! It was nice to see Nigella Lawson championing the devilled egg recently; a woman after my own heart.

Angels & devils on horseback

Savouries are often served on toast, fried bread or some kind of biscuit or cracker. In Eliza Action’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, there is just one recipe for savouries which appears to be a proto-croque monsieur, with a small footnote. She doesn’t seem to approve. In the twentieth century, however, you get entire books of the subject, the best being Good Savouries by Ambrose Heath (1934).

What makes a good savoury?

  1. Size matters: it must be one or two mouthfuls, so the best vehicles are toast, fried bread or crackers. However, boiled eggs work well as do oysters in the shell. As long as you can eat it without cutlery, you’re doing good.
  2. Salt: savouries are almost always highly seasoned with salt. This is apparently the digestive part, but it also functioned to give people a good thirst ready for a boozy evening ahead. Salt itself was rarely used, it’s much better to use more interesting ingredients such as anchovies, cured meat and fish, cheese and relishes such as mushroom ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, etc.
  3. Heat & spice: quite a lot of the ingredients served more that one purpose, so most of those listed above fit into this category too, but there was also good old black pepper, English mustard, Cayenne pepper, curry powder and Tabasco sauce.
  4. Strong flavours: other strong flavoured things were used, such as blue Stilton, kidney, liver, game and smoked meats and fish like ham, bloaters and even red herrings.
  5. Creaminess: all that salt, spice, richness and heat was often tempered with something bland and creamy and a variety of things were used for this purpose, such as cream (obviously), egg yolks, savoury custards, béchamel sauces, soft cheeses, brains, sweetbreads, lambs’ fries, fish roes, oysters and left-over poultry meat.

Devilled Chicken Livers

Probably the most infamous savoury is the devilled kidney, but you can devil lots of things. I pride myself on my devil sauce, and at The Buttery devilled chicken livers on toast became a rather unlikely signature dish. This recipe can be easily adapted if livers aren’t your thing: fish roes, kidney, brain, lambs’ fries, left over roasted poultry, mushrooms and even tofu can all be devilled with great success. My favourite is chicken liver because it has all of the qualities listed above in abundance. It’s a good idea to make extra devil sauce as it keeps in the fridge for a good ten days or so, and I can guarantee, you’ll be wanting to devil everything you eat from now on! Here’s how to make it.

Serves 2 as a light lunch or snack, or three as a first course, or six as a savoury course.

For the devil sauce:

2 tbs English mustard

2 tbs Worcestershire sauce or mushroom ketchup, or a mixture of the two

1 tbs vinegar

good pinch of Cayenne pepper

dash of Tabasco sauce

freshly ground black pepper

Simply beat all the ingredients together – taste and add more Tabasco and pepper if you like. There’s no need to add salt.

For the livers:

6 chicken livers

a decent knob of salted butter

the devil sauce

3 or 4 tbs double cream

1 slice of crisp toast per person

chopped parsley

First of all, check the livers for any bitter green gall sacks, which are often accidentally left on. If you sport one, snip it off with scissors.

Get a frying really good and hot and melt the butter. As soon is stops foaming, add your livers. Try not to disturb them. After 2 minutes, turn them over and cook for one more minute. Next, add most of the devil sauce and fry a further minute, making sure the livers get coated in it. Add the cream and let form a lovely rich sauce, turning the livers over in it. Have your toast ready on plates so you can top it with the livers and then the sauce. Scatter over some parsley and serve immediately.


Filed under Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Meat, Recipes, The Edwardians, The Victorians, Twentieth Century, Uncategorized

Two Easy Pickle Recipes

My previous post on pickling went on a bit, so I’ve added these two simple recipes as a separate one. The methods are not particularly comprehensive, so if you haven’t pickled before read the previous post for hints and tips.

Pickled Red Cabbage

As with many recipes for preserving, it’s difficult to come up with precise amounts. It all depends upon how much produce you have and the size and shape of your jars . A certain amount of guesswork is required. If you don’t make enough pickling liquor, you can quickly make more, and if you make too much, keep it in a sterilised jar; you can always use it pickle something else, or use it in salad dressings.

It is a good example of a system rather than of a recipe, but I reckon a good-sized red cabbage will need a litre of liquor. Oh and it’s a two-day affair, so don’t start this the day before a fortnight’s holiday or something:


Day 1:

1 red cabbage, sliced thinly, centre removed

Sea or rock salt

Scatter your sliced cabbage into a colander placed on a deep plate or large bowl and strew with plenty of salt. Cover with a tea towel and leave overnight for the water to drain.


Day 2:

1 litre of cider, wine or distilled vinegar

1 tsp peppercorns

1 chilli

1 tsp Allspice berries

50 g sugar

1 star anise

1 tsp Mustard seeds

Boil the vinegar with the spices and sugar, simmering for 5 minutes. Rinse the salt from the cabbage and pack into sterilised jars. Strain the hot vinegar and fill the jars with the piping hot liquor. Pop the chilli and star anise into the jars and a few of the seeds and berries (for prettiness). Put on lids and leave to mature for four weeks.

  1. Cover cabbage with salt for 24 hours.
  2. Next day, rinse away the salt and pack into sterilised jars.
  3. Boil up the remaining ingredients. Simmer 5 minutes and pour over the cabbage.


Delia Smith’s Quick Pickled Onions

from her Complete Cookery Course, 1982

“I’m afraid I have neither the strength nor the patience of endure long pickling sessions…so I always use the method below” says Delia.

No faffing about with this one: onions usually need brining or dry-salting. Delia skips this stage, but be warned: they don’t keep as long as regular pickled onions as the excess water isn’t drawn out by the salting process. They’ll keep 4 months maximum.

In her recipe, Delia asks for pickling spice, which you can buy already blended, but have a go at making your own; a keen cook will probably have most of the spices needed anyway! See the previous post for an example.

2 kg pickling onions [or shallots]

1.75 l of malt vinegar (Sarson’s is best)

25 g pickling spice

The first task is to peel the onions. Put them in a bowl and cover with boiling water straight from the kettle, drain and get peeling. The skins should now be relatively loose from their hot water treatment.

Half-fill your jars with onions – 4 1-litre jars will be enough – and share out half of the pickling spices between them, scattering nicely. Top up with the remainder of the onions, and then the rest of the spices. Pour the vinegar in (no need to heat it) and screw the lids on tightly. Leave the onions 8 weeks before eating them.


Filed under Blogs, food, General, Preserving, Uncategorized

Pickling at Home


Pickling is a form of food preservation that uses either vinegar or brine to keep food from spoiling. Good cooks in all households, rich or poor, throughout history had to know what they were doing if they were to get maximum yield and minimum waste from their home-grown produce, whether a tiny veg patch or a large kitchen garden. Therefore, if we’re to cook historical recipes, we too need to know what we’re doing.

Pickling in brine is essentially curing with salt and I’ll tackle that subject in a different post (this is not be confused with the brining some veg goes through before being pickled in vinegar (see below).

I thought that I’d go through how to make your own pickles at home as I got some good feedback on my previous preserving post: fruit jelly preserves. Pickling is easy and doesn’t require any expensive specialist equipment, so if you have never tried your hand at home-preserving, give it a go. A similar method is used to make flavoured vinegars, so I’ll write a little post on those too.

The ingredients

Vinegars: any vinegar can be used, however for long-term preservation a vinegar that is 5% acetic (ethanoic) acid is required. When it comes to choosing the correct, go for your personal preference. Malt vinegar packs the strongest punch and goes best with onions and shallots in my humble opinion. The cider and wine vinegars have a fresher, subtler flavour and are pretty much universal. Distilled or spirit vinegar is vinegar in its purest form, essentially just acid and water and can be used to pickle anything. It can be a little harsh so requires flavouring with aromatic herbs and spices.

Balsamic, Champagne and sherry vinegars can do the job of pickling perfectly well but are far too expensive for your glut of allotment red cabbage, though a touch of balsamic vinegar added to another does work well.

Pickled quails’ eggs

Herbs & Spices: Though not strictly essential, herbs and spices do give your pickles an extra aromatic dimension and take the edge off that often harsh vinegar astringency. Most herbs can be used with great effect: thyme, rosemary, bay, savory, oregano, dill and fennel all work very well.

Pretty much any whole spice can be used successfully here: fresh ginger, peppercorns, mustard seeds, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, dried or fresh chillies and dill seeds are the usual suspects. Use whatever you like, but a general rule for spice mixes is to add up to 25g of spice to each litre of vinegar. A good general spice mix:

1 tbs allspice berries

1 tbs mustard seeds

1 cinnamon stick

2 tsp black or white peppercorns

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 or 2 dried chillies

I’m going a little mediaeval and including sugar as a spice: the deliciousness of a pickle can be heightened immensely with a seasoning of sugar. This is especially important when pickling fruit such as pears or strawberries.

Salt: Many vegetables need to be salted in some way before pickling. The salting process draws water from the veg both firming it up and taking away water that would otherwise leach out and dilute the vinegar. Use either rock or sea salt for this, never table salt; it is far too harsh and inevitably some salt ends up in the final pickle, so a nice complex salt is best.

There are two types of salting: dry salting is where salt is sprinkled over vegetables and left overnight to drain. The other way is by brining, where the veg is immersed in a strong salt solution for 12 to 24 hours. A typical brine contains 85g of salt per litre of water.

The produce: these are the fruit, vegetables or eggs you want to pickle! They need to be a good size, unbruised and not overripe. Some vegetables need to be salted or cooked, some neither! When preparing your produce, make sure the pieces are a good size for when you come to eat them, and that they of a good size and shape to be packed well into jar. It’s important to remember that the produce needs to be completely covered and that there needs to be a decent space, around one centimetre, between the vinegar and the jar rim.

The Equipment

Aside from your regular kitchen pots, pans and jugs, there is little specialist equipment required.

Muslin & string: used to tie herbs and spices to infuse into the vinegar. Not essential though, as you always pass the vinegar through a sieve.

Jars & lids: obviously this is a must-have. I tend to use stocky hardwearing Kilner jars where I can, but I also hang on to any decent-sized jars that come my way. Make sure the metal lids of jars have a layer of white plastic under them; this makes them vinegar-proof.

Just part of my jar collection!

How to Pickle

This is a four-stage process:

Preparing the produce: Sometimes there is no prep, sometimes there’s cooking or salting. Check the recipe before you embark on your preserving as some veg needs a full 24 hours salting!

Preparing the pickle: The vinegar is simmered with its herbs and spices for 5-10 minutes, depending on the pungency required. This can be strained if a muslin bag wasn’t used. The pickling liquor is used hot or cold depending upon the recipe.

Potting: sterilised jars need to be packed quite tightly with your produce before the vinegar is poured in. Make sure everything is covered and pop the lid on tightly. Give the jar a jiggle to remove air bubbles. See this post if you don’t know how to sterilise jars.

Maturing: Leave your pickles for a month before eating them so that the vinegar can penetrate the veg. Waiting also matures the flavour making it more rounded and less harsh. Patience, dear readers, is a virtue.

Alright, that’s the basics…I’ll post recipes soon. If you can’t wait for me to post, see this previous pickled egg and this pickled beetroot recipe.

Pickled white beetroot


Filed under cooking, food, General, Preserving

Vinegar in the Home

Vinegar is, of course, delicious on your fish and chips and a great preserver, but it has been put on a bit of a pedestal by many because of its seemingly myriad uses in the kitchen and home.

Here’s a culinary tip I spotted in a book called Domestic Cookery from 1840 which is useful to anyone who has just caught themselves a hare; when hanging it in your larder, place a bowl beneath the beast to collect the blood. Add a teaspoon of vinegar to the bowl to stop the blood from coagulating. The blood can then be used to thicken the sauce when making the classic dish, jugged hare. Vinegar is used in the same way when making black puddings from fresh blood.

A brown hare (photo: Damien Waters)

Vinegar diluted in water can clean and polish so many things: floors, windows, stainless steel, chrome, carpets and cruets (no one wants a dirty sauce cruet!). Mixed with pinhead oatmeal or sand it works as an abrasive, cleaning oily hands efficiently, and mixed with bicarbonate of soda it can unblock your sink. Vinegar is a deodoriser, so add a few drops of an essential oil to a weak vinegar solution to make your own air freshener. Used neat it will remove ink stains from clothes and sanitise wooden chopping boards.

It has medical uses too. Hippocrates apparently used vinegar to treat sores and other infections, and the Victorians used to make a vinegar, sage and honey tea to treat sore throats. Modern medical research is looking into the application of vinegar to treat several diseases, including cancer.


By far my most favourite use of vinegar in history comes courtesy of Hannibal, that great Carthaginian general, who famously crossed the Alps on elephant. It is said that he used vinegar to dissolve any boulders blocking his mountainous path! He must have been either a very patient man, or had somehow produced acid as strong as hydrochloric.

For more – somewhat more modern – tips on using vinegar in the home take a look at the Sarson’s website.


Filed under Britain, food, General, history, Uncategorized

A Trip to the Sarson’s Vinegar Factory


A couple weeks ago I was invited by the iconic British condiment company, Sarson’s, to have a look around their factory and see the process of vinegar-making. They contacted me as they had noticed my little blog and thought I might be interested in seeing what they do because they make vinegar in the traditional way; and we’re all about tradition here at British Food: A History.

The word vinegar comes from the French words vin meaning wine of course, and aigre meaning sour or sharp, so when we talk about British malt vinegar, it’s actually a bit of a misnomer. What is in your bottle of Sarson’s used to be called alegar: sour ale! I think the word should be brought back (I’ll pop a note through to Mr and Mr Sarson).

Vinegar – aka ethanoic or acetic acid – is produced when specialist bacteria called acetobacteria metabolise normally deadly alcohol (ethanol) and harness energy from it. It takes a real specialist to use this killer chemical as a food source. Vinegar is, of course, an excellent preservative itself.

It is thought that vinegar and alcohol fermentation were discovered and refined in tandem, and the earliest example of vinegar-making goes right back to the ancient Babylonians who were brewing it from their beer and wine in 4000 BC! The ancient Romans refined methods somewhat, using wooden barrels to age and develop flavour.

The rear of the original London factory (Southwark Local Studies Library)

There are there are many types of vinegar, but malt vinegar, which is made from barley, is uniquely British, although these days it does travel a bit. Barley was a very important crop in Britain as it was grown to eat, but also to make ale. The average person in mediaeval England would drink around a litre of ale a day and it was the main source of calories for many (and much safer to drink than the water). Our love of ale meant there was plenty spare knocking about to transform into alegar. Sarson’s are the only company still making it in the traditional way and they have been producing it since 1794.

Before I had even arrived, I was greeted a delicious sweet and sour malt smell, and when the taxi pulled up outside the Manchester factory I was greeted again by the lovely folk who run the place. I donned my lab coat, safety glasses, hard hat and beard snood, and looking altogether pretty damn sexy I headed over the see the initial steps in the process.

I had always assumed that when malt vinegar was made, ale would be bought in and then fermented, but this is not the case! Sarson’s do the whole process from start to finish, including making the ale itself. It is truly made from scratch.

Barley grains

The first step is to lightly mill the barley so that the grains can crack open. It is then soaked in spring water and heated up in mash tuns: huge metal vats that constantly stir the barley and the water is collected. This process of mashing extracts the sugars.

Swishing away the sweetwort

I was allowed a little taste of the sugary liquid – or sweetwort – and couldn’t believe how sweet and delicious it was (when I got home, I looked in a few old books and found that home-made barley water was produced in essentially the same way).

The cooled sweetwort now enters the first round of fermentation: yeast is added so it can get to work anaerobically turning sugar into alcohol. This six-day process produces a barley ale that is a whopping 9.5% alcohol.

Now the alcohol can be converted into vinegar in the second round of fermentation. It was this part of the process that I found to be truly amazing: I assumed that to make a product and attain perfect consistency between batches, Sarson’s would have to seed the ale with a mother (or mother-of-vinegar to give her full title, a of plug acetobacteria) that had been carefully selected over years or even decades, to produce a unique strain (wine and beer makers do this with their yeasts). What Sarson’s actually do is simply add the shavings of the bark from the larch tree, which naturally harbours a community of acetobacteria species. This all happens in wooden tubs called acetifiers and it takes seven days for the larch bacteria to do their magic.

The huge physics-defying oak barrels!

For the last stage, the vinegar is stored in huge 40 000 litre barrels – some 100 years old – to be standardised to the correct strength (5% ethanoic acid).

Standardising the final product

The vinegar is heated up to kill the bacteria and it is piped through to the very noisy and exciting bottling room. I loved watching the bottles rattling around on the conveyor belts. It was as though I had literally stepped through the arch window on Playschool!

Then, to top it all off, they handed me my very own personalised bottle of malt vinegar!

Many thanks to Sarson’s for asking me to come to their place and let me be a nosey parker for an afternoon – I will certainly be paying the malt vinegar I put on my fish and chips in even higher regard from now on!

Next post, I’ll write a little bit about how we use – and used vinegar in the home.


Filed under Brewing, Britain, business, food, General, history, Preserving