Category Archives: Preserving

A Trip to the Sarson’s Vinegar Factory

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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.

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How to Make Medlar (or Quince or Crab Apple) Jelly

Last post I told you all about the overlooked fruit the medlar (or openarse). It’s a tricky one as it can’t just be picked and eaten like most dessert fruits. The way to get the most of any medlars you do get your hands on is to make a jelly, a beautiful deep vermillion preserve which makes an excellent accompaniment to game, roast or cured meats and cheese.

I thought it would also be a good opportunity to go through the process of making a jelly preserve; something I have been threatening to do for a while. This recipe works well with the close relations of the medlar: the quince and the crab apple.

Choosing the fruit:

There is a bit of disagreement as to how ripe your medlars should be; some say only unripe medlars should be used, others that ¼ to ½ of them should be bletted (soft and brown). I have only ever used unripe ones – these produce a clear, bright jelly with an astringency comparable to strong tea. Next time, I’ll be patient and wait for a good proportion of them to blet.

Medlars are high in pectin, a chemical glue that sticks plant cells together. As fruit ripens, the pectin is broken down by enzymes making the fruit soft. When making a jelly, one needs to release the pectin by boiling the fruit until pulpy so that it can set the jelly. If using a lot of ripe fruit, I would suggest adding some crab apples or tart eating apples such as Cox’s orange pippins or russets. Alternatively, a proportion of the sugar can be replaced with jam sugar, ensuring a decent set.

Quince and crab apples do not have this problem and you should be okay.

It’s worth mentioning that if you only have a few medlars, quinces or crab apples, you can supplement with some regular apples and the resulting jelly will be still be great. I’ve made quince jelly with 50% apples before and it was delicious!

Ingredients and equipment:

Aside from the fruit, all you need is water, granulated sugar and some optional cider vinegar. I think a little vinegar cuts through the sweetness very well, but you can leave it out if you prefer.

I don’t add herbs and spices to medlar or quince jelly, but crab apple jelly can benefit from some subtle flavouring: things like rosemary and thyme work well as do cinnamon, cloves and black pepper.

Specialist equipment is easy to get hold of and inexpensive: you’ll need a good-sized sheet of muslin or a jelly bag (though a tea towel or pillowcase will also do the job), a sugar thermometer or temperature probe, and some jars with lids.

Method:

Day One

Scrub the fruit(s), chop roughly – there’s no need to peel or core the fruit – and place in a large pot along with any herbs and spices if using. Just cover the fruit with water and bring to a good simmer and add some cider vinegar, around 50 ml per litre of water.

Turn on the heat, cover and simmer until very soft. Very hard fruit can take an hour, though I do give things a helping hand by squishing the fruit against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon.

When the fruit is ready, scald your muslin or jelly bag iwith hot water. If using a jelly bag, place it on its stand with a bowl beneath it, if using muslin, use it to line a bowl. Carefully, ladle the fruit and cooking liquor into the bag/lined bowl – be careful.

The jelly bag can be left to do its thing, but if just using muslin, a little extra work is required: collect up the edges and tie them well with string. You now need to hang this hot haversack of pulp over the bowl to drip overnight. I hook it over a cupboard handle and then in the fridge to keep the fruit flies off. However you do it, make sure things are securely tied – those bags can be pretty weighty.

Day Two

By now, the liquor should have stopped dripping, but give it a squeeze just to see if you can get any more out. Don’t worry of the juice has gone cloudy, this is common with medlars.

Measure the volume of juice and pour into a heavy based stockpot. To this, add your granulated sugar in the ratio of 500g sugar for every 600ml of juice. Turn the heat on and stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. At this point, clip on your sugar thermometer, if using. Turn up the heat so that the syrupy mixture can boil hard. As you wait for this to happen, pop a saucer into your freezer. Skim away any scum that is thrown up.

Let the syrup boil for at least twenty minutes and check the temperature – pectin sets at 105°C. Sometimes jellies don’t always set, so it’s best to double-check with the wrinkle test. Remember that sauce in the fridge? Take it out and drop some of the jelly onto it. Let it cool for a couple of minutes. If it wrinkles when you push it with your finger, all is well and the jelly is ready to be potted into sterilised jars.

(Sterilising jars is easy: place on a baking tray and pop into an oven preheated to 125°C for at least 25 minutes. I usually put mine in as the jelly is coming to a boil. Any rubber seals can be scalded in boiling water closer to the time.)

Use a jug to pour the jelly into jars, don’t overfill here, a gap of one centimetre below the rim is good. Some jars have a helpful maximum fill line on them. Seal with the lids as soon as you can. Be very careful here!

The next day, the jelly should be set, but sometimes it takes a few days, especially if vinegar was used.

The jelly will keep for 6 months unopened, once open keep in the fridge.

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The Original (Quince) Marmalade

As I mentioned in my previous post about Seville oranges that the original marmalade was in fact made from quinces and not oranges, I thought I would give you a recipe that I have recently used for the stall. It’s a recipe that appears in Eliza Acton’s 1845 book Modern Cookery. It’s an easy recipe that would be a good one to start with if you have never made a sweet preserve as you don’t need to mess about with sugar thermometers and setting points. One of the great things about making preserves with quinces is the glorious colour they go. A relatively brief boil transforms them from a pale apple-yellow to a vibrant orange-coral.

The tricky thing is getting your hands on some quinces they are available from October, but I have recently seen some organic ones in the Manchester organic grocers Unicorn. If your local greengrocer doesn’t have them on their shelves, it is worth asking if they can get them. My grocer was very happy to get me a full tray for just a tenner, so I was very pleased with that.

I have recently found another slightly more complicated version of this recipe but I have not tried it – we’ll have to wait for next autumn for that one!

Eliza Acton’s Quince Marmalade

2kg (4 1/2 lbs) quinces

water

granulated sugar

Wash and scrub any fluff of the quinces, then peel and core them. Place them in a large pan and pour over enough water to almost cover. Turn up the heat and when it begins to boil, turn heat down to a simmer and stew 35-45 minutes until the fruit is soft. Strain and pass fruit through a mouli-legumes.

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Put the pulp back in the pan with the strained juice and add 280g sugar for every 500ml juice or, 1 ½ lbs sugar for every pint of juice). Stir and dissolve under low heat then, simmer until it resembles ‘thick porridge’ and begins to leave the side of the pan when you stir it.

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Pour the marmalade into sterilised pots. It is very good as a jam on toast, with cheese or as an accompaniment to hot or cold meats.

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Seville Oranges and Seville Orange Marmalade

The weather outside may be miserable and the evenings still long, but luckily there is a little fleeting  sunny surprise popping up in grocers around the country that can perk us up no end; at least if you know where to find them. It is Seville orange season and a small window of just a few weeks is all we have to cook with this delicious fruit.

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The Seville orange is very bitter and is only really grown in Spain for us British to make our Oxford marmalade. What a treat home-made marmalade is; oranges, water and sugar that is all that are needed to produce such a delightful, very British preserve. If you have never made your own, have a go before they are all disappear again.

Like all citrus fruits, the Seville orange comes originally from China. It was imported on trade routes via Italy, to the Mediterranean countries of Europe. All of these original orange trees were bitter in flavour like the Seville. In the first half of the 17th century, sweet orange trees were delivered to the Portuguese coast by ship. These sweet oranges quickly superseded the bitter ones, that is for that small area of Spain that still grows them.

The flowers of Seville oranges are also used to make orange flower water, another of my favourite ingredients.

Seville and game painting

Rabbit with Red Legged Partridge and Seville Orange by Jean-Baptiste Chardin 1728-29

Below is a recipe for  Seville orange marmalade, but it is useful to know that the zest and juice of these oranges go very well with game and some shellfish such as scallops as the above painting shows.

 

Seville Orange Marmalade

Oddly enough, marmalade was not made from Seville or any other orange at first, but quince (a knobbly cousin of apples and pears). It did come from Spain though, in fact the Spanish word for quince is marmalada. Every day’s a school day.

This recipe is Jane Grigson’s and it is a good strong bittersweet ‘Oxford’ style marmalade.

Ingredients

3 ¼ litres water

1 ½ (3 lb) Seville Oranges

3 kg (6 lb) granulated sugar

Give your oranges a good scrub and place them in a preserving pan or large stockpot with the water. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 1 ½ hours until the oranges are tender.

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Take them out with a slotted spoon. They will probably collapse in on themselves, but don’t worry about that. Let them cool a little, then halve them and scoop out their innards. Tie up the scooped-out pulp in a piece of muslin. If you want a soft set, just put the bag of pulp straight into the pan, if you want it well set, give it a good squeeze to get as much pectin out of the pith and into the liquor as possible (I’m a soft set man).

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Next, shred the peel, you can be as careful as you want, and you can cut them as thick as you want. You can do this by hand or in the food processor by blitzing them using the pulse setting – be careful though, you don’t want a load of slurry. I’m usually dead against using food processors for this sort of thing, but I quite like the irregular pieces you get with this method. Tip them into the pan along with the sugar. Over a medium heat, stir until the sugar dissolves.

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Now you need to be brave and bring it to a full rolling boil for at least 15 minutes , you need it very hot so that the marmalade can set. You have several options to test for a set, but I use a combination of a sugar thermometer and the wrinkle test. Pectin – a chemical that essentially glues plant cell walls together – will set to a gel at 105⁰C (221⁰F), so a thermometer is crucial if you want to know if you are getting close. It can take a while because water needs to evaporate to get five degrees above boiling point. Keep a close eye on it and when it gets close do the wrinkle test. For this test put a side plate in your freezer a little while before you want to make your marmalade, and when you’ve achieved 105⁰C (221⁰F), turn off the heat and spoon out a little of it onto your cold plate. Return it to the freezer for a couple of minutes. Push the jelly; if it wrinkles up, your pectin is set. If not, boil up again and retest after 10 minutes.

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When ready, turn off the heat and allow it to cool for 15 minutes – this important step will stop your peel from floating to the top in a single layer – then pot into sterilized jars (bake them and their lids for 25 minutes at 125⁰C or 250⁰F).

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Jane Grigson’s Orange Mincemeat

It’s just occurred to me that I haven’t put on a Christmas recipe and it is only just over two weeks until the special day. This month has flown by at a scarily quick pace.

Luckily two weeks is just enough time to make this delicious orange flavoured mincemeat. Last year I gave you Mrs Beeton’s recipe, but this one comes from the wonderful Jane Grigson. It is very moist and because of the brandy, orange juice and orange liqueur. It is also vegetarian if you want it to be; the suet can be the vegetable-based sort, or you can leave it out altogether. Give it a go.

Jane Grigson

Jane Grigson

It is extremely easy to make: there is no cooking required so all you need to be able to do is chop, grate, mix and weigh. When you pot the mincemeat, it is very important you sterilise your jars. To do this first wash them in soapy water, then rinse and allow them to dry. Place the jars on a tray, with their lids sat beside them, facing upwards and pop them in the oven for 30 minutes at around 130⁰C. Let them cool a little before potting. If this seems a lot to make in one go, you can easily reduce the amounts as you see fit.

Click here for the recipe I use for making mince pies.

 

Ingredients

250 g (8 oz) chopped candied peel

1 kg (2 lb) peeled, cored and grated apples

500 g (1 lb) suet (fresh or packed is fine, but fresh is best)

500 g (1 lb) currants

500 g (1 lb) raisins

500 g (1 lb) sultanas

500 g (1 lb) soft dark brown sugar

1 freshly grated nutmeg

125 g (4 oz) slivered almonds

Juice and zest of 2 oranges

4 tbs brandy

6-8 tbs orange liqueur

 

Mix all the ingredients together in a huge mixing bowl, then pot into sterilised jars. Store somewhere dark and cool, but not the fridge! Leave the mincemeat to mature for at least together before using it.

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Beetroot

Hello there everyone. Here’s just a quick post to prove that I am not dead, but still alive and kicking! I have had such a crazy couple of months getting this business of the ground whilst working at the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University. Phewee! There’s no rest for the wicked as they say (and if it is true then I must be extremely wicked indeed).

Anne Swan BeetrootAnn Swan’s beautiful vegetable art

 

One vegetable that ranks very highly in my favourite foods is the humble beetroot; it would certainly be in my Top 10. Jane Grigson wrote a fantastic book called Good Things in which each chapter focusses on her favourite ingredients. If I were to write my own version, beetroot would be included. It’s that mixture of sweetness and earthiness that you can’t really get from anything else. Some people shudder at the thought of it as a vegetable in its own right – too much overcooked purple mush at school has not done it any favours – and only really eat it as a pickle.

It is actually a very versatile vegetable; you can boil it, roast it, pickle it, and by virtue of its sweetness, use it as a cake ingredient that surpasses the carrot.

Beetroot has been cultivated for centuries and its ancestor is the sea beet Beta marinama a rather common plant found around the coasts of Eurasia, especially along the Mediterranean Sea. It is from this plant we get today’s red beet (plus several other varieties like the golden beetroot) as well as sugar beet and the less well-known mangel-wurzel or mangold. The latter is used mostly as animal fodder, though it has been a food crop for people too in the past (for those of you that remember it, the scarecrow Wurzel Gummidge had a head made from mangel-wurzel). The history of sugar beet is very interesting and deserves a post all to its own. Oddly enough, the beet plant wasn’t cultivated for its sweet tap roots at first, but its leafy greens. Indeed, our Swiss chard is also of the same species as beetroot and sugar beet. Eating the root didn’t catch on until the 16th century.

There is loads of beetroot hanging around at the moment and it should be reasonably cheap in the greengrocer’s shop this time of year, so you should jump at the chance to having a go at preserving them. I got a huge batch from Manchester Veg People.

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I have already provided a recipe for curried beetroot chutney, but I thought I’d give you the recipe I use to pickle beetroot as well. I first came across it in Good Things (1932) by Florence White, who mentions that the recipe must be very old, though she mentions neither when it was written or by whom. I did find an almost identical recipe as I was flicking through a copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861; which can be read online; see this link here).

It is the inclusion of an infusion of black peppercorns and allspice that really makes this pickle special. You’ll never go back to buying jars of it ever again! It’s important to remember to not peel the beetroots before you cook them, otherwise their wonderful colour will be lost to the cooking water.

 

Pickled Beetroot

2 kg (4 ½ lbs) beetroot

1 ¼ litres (2 pints) cider vinegar

15 g (½ oz) peppercorns

15 g (½ oz) allspice berries

Top and tail but do not peel the beetroot, then simmer them in plain water for around 30 minutes until tender. Very large ones may take over an hour to cook. Meanwhile, boil up the vinegar with the spices and simmer for 10 minutes then strain. Let the beetroots and vinegar cool completely before peeling and slicing the beetroots.

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Put into sterilised jars and cover with the strained, cooled vinegar. In two weeks they’ll be ready to enjoy.

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Know Your Onions

It is an exciting time for those that grow their own onions because onion season is in mid-flow. It was probably a while ago that the onions themselves were picked, but they generally grow through a short period of drying before they are used in the kitchen or put into storage over the wintertime.

I’ve never grown them myself, but I feel that when it comes to cooking and eating onions, I really know my, er, onions. (Funny saying that; there is one theory that it was invented by etymologists working on the Oxford English Dictionary who coined it in great admiration of one of the best and most knowledgeable grammarians of the day, a certain C T Onions. How I wish it were true, but it seems that is actually American. Oh well.)

I love onions and they are one of the most loved vegetables, they are certainly the most used vegetable in the world – there is not a single cuisine I can think of that doesn’t use them. In Western cookery, onions make up one of the trinity of stock vegetables alongside carrots and celery; and there are countless recipes that begin with slicing or chopping an onion before browning in butter or oil. They are a universal seasoner of foods, a ubiquitous seasoning that is not always detectable, but if it were to be omitted you would miss them.

And I do, for I recently found out that I have an onion ‘intolerance’, or at least my alimentary canal does. Finding a replacement has been tricky, but I have recently adopted using the finely sliced green parts of a leek along with a clove of garlic. It is strange that I essentially turn myself inside out after eating a cheese and onion sandwich and yet I can happily tuck into the remainder of the onion family: garlic, leeks and chives and not suffer even the mildest discomfort. Anyway, you don’t want to know about all that – I sound like an old woman!

Allium, the Onions

There are around 500 species of plant that belong to the Genus Allium, and botanically speaking they are all members of the lily family, though only a score are important as foods worldwide, and even fewer that are important to the British, though the onion, garlic and leek were all eaten in Ancient Egypt and even appear in the Old Testament of The Bible.

Below is a lovely illustration from the wonderful book Food in England by Dorothy Hartley showing the ‘Most Common or Garden Onions’. Chives and leeks have been omitted as they are suitably different to be considered standalone vegetables/herbs. There are familiar and unfamiliar onions here, and some that have been omitted, like mild white onions. Two that I have never sampled are the Welsh Holtzers and the strange Egyptian, or tree, onion.

I am going to stick to the familiar brown onion that we all know and love in this post. At the foot of the above drawing it is mentioned that onions, bread and cheese ‘are spoken together as Field Fare in our earliest manuscripts’. These three food items would have been bagged up or kept in the pocket of a ploughman or other farm worker for much-needed sustenance throughout the long working day. The original ploughman’s lunch that dates to not too long after the first century when onions were first introduced to Britain by the Romans.

Two Onion Recipes

So many recipes use onions, but so few of them show them off as the star of the show and we forget that onions can be served as vegetables in their own right. Here are two recipes that I think do them justice.

Baked Onions, or Orbs of Joy

This is a very old recipe that has recently been given a second wind by Fergus Henderson the great ‘nose to tail’ chef at St John in London. Looking at his recipe and one written in 1954 by Dorothy Hartley, there is only one difference and that is the type of onion used – a stoic brown onion or a prettier red onion. Use whichever you grow or prefer. Serve with roast game, chicken, goose or beef, using the appropriate stock.

Ingredients

butter

one good-sized onion per person

chicken, beef or vegetable stock

salt and pepper

Smear some healthy knobs of butter on the bottom of a deep ovenproof dish. Peel your onions, cut off the rooty part and sit them in the dish. Pour in enough hot stock almost to cover. Season the tops with salt and pepper. Bake uncovered in a moderate oven, around 160⁰C, until the onions are tender within and caramelised without. Test their doneness with a skewer. If you only have a little stock, cover the dish and only remove it toward the end of the cooking time so they can ‘brown becomingly’.

Onion Marmalade

I imagined that onion marmalade had been around for ages but only seems to date back to the latter half of the last century. Who knew? This is a recipe of my own concoction and is a top-seller on my stall. There are plenty of dark sweet flavours as well as tart vinegar. I use cider or wine vinegar as well as Balsamic vinegar in mine. Feel free to alter the ratio of the two to your own liking. It makes about 1 litre (2 pints) of marmalade. Have it in a cheese sandwich, with bangers and mash, or with some nice potted chicken livers.

Ingredients

2 kg (4.5 lbs) onions, halved and thinly sliced

5 tbs olive oil

100 g (4 oz) granulated sugar

100 g (4oz) soft dark brown sugar

1 tbs chopped thyme leaves

4 bay leaves

1 ½ tsp salt and ½ tsp ground black pepper

250 ml (9 fl oz)  cider or wine vinegar (red or white)

50 ml (2 fl oz) balsamic vinegar

Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Turn up the heat and add the onion. Using a wooden spoon, coat the onions well in the oil. Add the sugars, thyme, salt and pepper, then turn heat down to medium and mix until the sugars have dissolve. Simmer uncovered for at least 50 minutes on a medium-low heat, until the onions have become deliciously brown and mushy. Take your time, be as slow as possible. If you don’t have 50 minutes or more to spare, wait for a time you do!

Pour in the vinegars and simmer for a further 30 minutes until the liquids have reduced to about one-quarter and are good and syrupy. Let the marmalade cool for 10 minutes then jar as normal.

 

 

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