Tag Archives: food

Cornish Food

Last month I managed to grab a little getaway to one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom – Cornwall. I’ve always loved going there, having wonderful memories of holidaying in places like Newquay and Torquay as a child. It was only when I arrived that I realised that the last time I visited was August 1999, the year of the total eclipse of the Sun – twenty blinking years ago! I felt so old.

Tintangel (pic: Hugues Roberts)

This time I visited with my partner, and avoided the obvious holiday places, our headquarters being a picturesque seventeenth century cottage in the lovely little town of Camelford. The nearest place to visit from there is Tintagel with its ancient castle and apparent birthplace of the mythical King Arthur. We also had a nosey round the Boscastle, which is worth visiting for the eerie Museum of Witchcraft and Magic if nothing else. We climbed Exmoor and hiked around the lovely harbour town Fowey (pronounced to rhyme with joy). Padstow was on the itinerary too, where I had the best fish and chips I’ve ever had.

Wandering over the Tintagel moorland (pic: Hugues Roberts)

For those of you not familiar with the geography of the UK, Cornwall is a county that takes up the tip of the long peninsula that makes up the very south-west of England. Because it is out on a limb, Cornwall feels different to the rest of England. The is due to the fact that the indigenous people – the Britons – were never conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in the fourth century BCE. As a result they retained their own language, Cornish, just as the other unconquered Britons did such as the Welsh. It really does feel ancient and magical – and this coming from a devout atheist! It has wild and untouched landscapes, beautiful dramatic skies and a real connection with the past. It’s also great for foraging – I spotted wild cabbage, fennel, rock samphire, sea kale and rocket all lurking about the sandy and rocky beaches.

A map of Cornwall (pic: Google Maps)

To the east of Cornwall is the county of Devon. The two have a friendly rivalry (I’m sure this wasn’t always the case!) especially when it comes to food, as you will see.

I tried to eat as many Cornish things as possible during our three-night stay, so I thought I would write a quick guide to Cornish food and follow it up with a few regional recipes.

A beautiful Cornish sunset (pic: Hugues Roberts)

Pasties

The Cornish pastry is probably Cornwall’s most famous food. It’s a simple affair, containing beef, potato, turnip and onion, all generously seasoned with ground black pepper. On no account must you add carrot to your Cornish pasty, and the meat must be chopped, not minced. They are crimped down one edge; never have your crimp go across the top of the pasty, because what you have there is a Devonshire pastry, and that will never do. There are other pasties – or “oggies” as the are called colloquially, made with apples or jam. There’s also a squab pie which is made from lamb and apples.

A cream tea (I must admit, I prefer the Devonshire method!)

Cream teas

One of my most favourite things in the world is a cream tea. It is made of a nice pot of tea, a scone (plain or fruit), jam and clotted cream. Now – this is very important – for a Cornish cream tea you apply the jam first and then the clotted cream, in Devon however, it’s cream first and then jam. Both counties believe that the other’s way is the work of heathens. Clotted cream is a very thick cream made by evaporating double cream over a very low heat, resulting in a cream that is butter-like in consistency and topped with an appetising pale crust. It is also used to make heavenly Cornish ice cream.

Fish

I’ve always found it odd that as an Island nation, we British don’t really like fish. Cornwall lands some of the best quality fish and seafood in the world, and yet its most identifies with a meat pasty. Cornwall has particularly fine – and plentiful – crabs, and one of the best things anyone could eat is dressed crab, brown bread, salted butter and fresh lemon. You’ve to look for it to find it, but it is available.

An infamous dish in these parts is stargazy pie a simple dish of sardines baked under a pastry crust. The fishes are boned, but their little heads are left on so that they can peek out the pie’s edge looking up to the heavens.

A stargazy pie (pic: Jusrol)

In Padstow, we visited Rick Stein’s fish and chip shop. Mr Stein (a food hero of mine) gets a hard time from the locals because he has so many businesses there; so much so, they have nicknamed it rather glibly ‘Padstein’. We didn’t get the chance to visit his restaurant, but we were not disappointed with the chip shop – I had the best cod and chips I have ever eaten. Beautifully crisp batter, creamy soft fish and proper made-from-scratch tartare sauce. Delish!

Cornish Splits

Another sweet treat made up of simply a bun made from a bread dough enriched with sugar, egg and butter, filled with jam and whipped cream. The grandfather to the doughnut, I would imagine.

Saffron Buns

Very popular – and very regional to the south-west are these delicious little buns. They are very similar to a hot cross bun, except it is a beautiful golden-yellow colour due to the healthy pinch of saffron which is added to the mix.

A brace of lovely saffron buns

There are other regional dishes too, such as hog’s pudding – often found on a Cornish fried breakfast instead of black pudding. There is Cornish heavy cake (aka hevva cake), which is similar to a the Chorley cakes one finds in North West England, and the delicious cheese known as Yarg which is similar to the Welsh cheese Caerphilly but is wrapped in nettle leaves.

Apologies if I have missed anything off – if you spot anything, please add to the comments section below. I’ll be back soon with some Cornwall-inspired recipes.

27 Comments

Filed under Britain, food, General, history

Macaroni Cheese

At the end of last year, I finally had the opportunity to visit the United States to visit old friends – and haunts – in Houston, St Louis and Chicago, as well as discovering new cities such as Dallas, New York and New Orleans. It was a crazy whistle stop road trip and no mistake.

Having lived on both sides of the Pond, I can really appreciate the American influence on British cuisine. So much deliciousness has drifted over the Atlantic to wedge itself firmly in the psyche of British – nobody in the UK could possibly imagine a world without mouth-watering pulled pork, pillowy cinnamon buns or squidgy chocolate brownies (and blondies!).

One of the best foods of all is Mac and Cheese, and although considered very much an all-American (or perhaps the American) meal, macaroni cheese has its origins firmly planted in Britain.

Macaroni cheese emigrated to the US and Canada with the British settlers, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, during the Great Depression, that it really became part of American culture. Millions were starving, but one entrepreneurial salesman from St Louis, Missouri had the idea to combine nonperishable dried pasta with dried processed cheese. It could be mass produced and priced low. It was a huge hit, quickly establishing itself as the ‘American Housewife’s Best Friend’, feeding a family of four for just twenty cents. It literally saved a nation from starvation.

Elizabeth Raffauld

The first mention of it my side of the Pond can be found in the 1769 classic cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffauld. It says To Dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese:

Boil four ounces of macaroni till it be quite tender and lay it on a sieve to drain. Then put it in a tossing pan with about a gill [a quarter of a pint] of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send it to the table on a water plate, for it soon gets cold.

All the elements of a modern macaroni cheese: the appropriate pasta, a proto-béchamel sauce, plenty of cream and lots of cheese; perhaps surprisingly, parmesan cheese.

But we can go back even further; back to the 1390s in fact, with Britain’s earliest cookbook Forme of Cury. Pasta made from breadcrumbs (I must try it sometime) cooked in a velouté sauce (like a béchamel but made with stock instead of milk), and something called chese ruayn which was a hard cheese similar in taste to brie, resulting in something half-way between macaroni cheese and a lasagne. I wonder if there’s an extant French cheese that could fit the bill if I tried to cook this dish?

Take good broth and do in an earthen pot. Take flour of payndemayn [high quality white bread] and make thereof past[e] with water, and make therof thynne foyles as paper with a roller; drye it hard and seeth [simmer] it in broth. Take chese ruayn grated and lay it in dishes with powdour douce [a mix of warm spices such as cinnamon, cloves etc], and lay on the loseyns [the pasta sheets] isode as hole as thou myst, and above powdour and chese; and so twyce or thrice [i.e. layer it up], & serve it forth.

This dish must have remained popular because macaroni and other pasta dishes using cheese and velouté sauce appear crop up again in Eliza Acton’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families. There is also the more familiar béchamel sauce version. What is interesting is that there is a variety of cheeses used in these recipes: Cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyere and blue Stilton all feature. I love blue cheese, so this one really stood out for me and I have adapted it below.

If blue cheese isn’t your thing, replace it with another. Cheddar, red Leicester or a mature Lancashire would all work. This recipe produces a rather saucy macaroni cheese, if you prefer a thicker consistency, add an extra 50 grams of pasta.

Blue Stilton Macaroni Cheese

Serves four:

30 g plain flour

30 g butter

400 ml hot full-fat milk

150 ml double cream

200 g macaroni

1 slice stale bread

½ tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or ¼ tsp fried rosemary (optional)

225 g Stilton cheese, grated

200 g Gruyere or Cheddar cheese, grated

Pinch Cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly-milled black pepper

First of all make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan. As soon as it has finished foaming, tip in the flour and mix well with a small whisk or wooden spoon. Cook on a medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. If the roux starts to brown, turn down the heat.

Beat in around a quarter of the milk with your whisk, adding another quarter once the first lot is fully incorporated. Repeat until all of the milk is used up. Add the cream and allow the béchamel sauce to simmer gently for around 10 minutes. Make sure you stir every minute or so, to stop the flour sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile cook the macaroni in plenty of salted water – follow the instructions on the packet and cook for two minutes less than the instructions state.

Make the bread into breadcrumbs by pulsing in a food processor. If using, add the rosemary half way through the pulsing process.

Take the sauce off the heat and drain the pasta. Stir in the cheeses, mixing until fully incorporated. Tip in the pasta and mix. Now season well with salt, black pepper and Cayenne pepper.

Pour the whole lot into a baking dish of a capacity of 1.5 litres, or thereabouts and bake for around 20 minutes at 180°C until brown and bubbling and the breadcrumbs are well-toasted.

Serve straight away with crusty bread or a rocket salad.

12 Comments

Filed under Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Recipes, Uncategorized

Medlar Tart

It’s medlar (aka openarse) season at the moment, and I thought I would try the recipe I mentioned in the medlar post from last year.

There’s quite little to go on with medlar preparation in books and the internet as people don’t really eat or cook with them these days, beyond medlar jelly, so every year, I learn a little more about eating and cooking them.

This year I have been more patient and waited for them to get fully-bletted. Medlars are a strange fruit in that they cannot be eaten until they have gone very dark, ripe and soft, a process called bletting. Any other fruit would be thrown away in this state, but medlars are unique because they go from sour and astringent to a tart, soft date-like fruit. They can be sliced in two and the soft flesh can be squeezed or spooned out. Within there are 5 large seeds, so you have watch out for them.

This medlar tart recipe comes from the 1597 book The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson. It is a very simple paste made from medlar pulp, cinnamon, ginger and sugar baked in a pastry case. Here’s the recipe as it appears in the book:

Take medlars that be rotten and stamp them. Then set them on a chafing dish with coals, and beat in two yolks of eggs, boiling till it be somewhat thick. Then season them with sugar, cinnamon and ginger and lay it in the paste.

Back in Tudor times (Elizabeth I was on the throne when the book was published), sugar was not always as refined as today, so to replicate this I used soft light brown sugar. I decided to use rough-puff pastry as my ‘paste’, as it was often used for the more delicate desserts and posh pies. I changed the method slightly and instead of thickening the medlar mixture in a pan, as you would for pouring custard, I put the uncooked mixture into the case and baked it in the oven.

I did have a look for other recipes and found that things like butter, nutmeg, candied fruit or citron, sweet cider and musk powder (that final one might be a little tricky to source) were all added merrily.

This tart is very good indeed, evocative of the American pumpkin pie. I would certainly give it a go should you happen upon a medlar tree.

For the tart:

Blind-baked shallow 8-inch pastry case

750 g well-bletted medlars

75 g caster or soft light brown sugar

3 egg yolks

1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger

 

Cut the medlars and twist in half widthways, as you might do with an avocado (except there are 5 pips rather than one large one). Scoop or squeeze the soft flesh into a bowl, removing pips as you go. I tried to pass the squeezed flesh through a sieve, which was a little tricky and boring but realised quite quickly that I wasn’t patient enough and decided instead that the flesh was smooth enough straight from the fruit.

Beat in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the pastry case and bake for 20 minutes at 175°C.

Eat warm with thick cream.

6 Comments

Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, Desserts, food, Fruit, history, Puddings, Recipes

Pease Pancakes

Hello there readers, sorry I’ve been a bit tardy with posts but I’ve gotten somewhat bogged with a post on the history of vegetarianism that currently looks to be about four posts long! I’m ignoring the writers’ block by writing this little easy post instead…

I was having a sort out of the kitchen cupboards and happened upon the bag of pea flour I had bought to write a post on peasebread a while ago. Researching for the post, I found that in the very north of Scotland, people ate a lot of peasemeal until recently, because very little in the way of cereals could be grown up there. These Scottish islanders would make pease pancakes amongst other things, so I thought I might have a go at them myself. Having no recipe, I just adapted my own recipe for American pancakes. They turned out pretty good – much better than the peasebread – and were delicious with some fried mushrooms and black pudding. They had a distinctive fresh pea and roast peanut flavour to them, and were slightly rubbery, but not in an unpleasant way.

Makes 10 to 12 pancakes:

½ cup pea flour

½ cup self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 tbs sunflower oil or 25 g melted butter

1 beaten egg

¾ cup milk, or half-milk half-water

sunflower oil for frying

 

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the oil or butter, egg and around half of the milk. Beat in with a wire whisk until the thick batter is lump-free, then carefully mix in the rest of the liquid.

Put a griddlepan or non-stick pan on a medium heat and allow it to get hot. Add a little oil and spoon in small ladles into the pan. You should be able to fit 3 or 4 pancakes in each pan.

Allow to fry for a couple of minutes before checking that they are golden brown. Once they are, flip and fry the other side.

Pile up and keep warm in a very cool oven. Add a little more oil to the pan if needed and continue to fry in batches.

Serve with typical breakfast things: bacon, sausage, poached egg, mushrooms etc.

3 Comments

Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Recipes

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.

7 Comments

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

Savouries

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.

5 Comments

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

A Trip to the Sarson’s Vinegar Factory

SARSONS-LOGO

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.

13 Comments

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