It used to be thought that standing wine was turned into vinegar by vinegar flies; or perhaps it was that these little insects were bred spontaneously out of vinegar, or maybe both, at different times – I don’t remember when or where I read this fact, these facts. Leave a cup of vinegar uncovered for an hour or two, anyway, and you’ll see why this possibly fictional belief persisted – flies you never knew were there will have suicided within it. I don’t know why they do this.
We now know, of course, that wine (or beer, cider, or fruit wine) is turned into vinegar by a helpful bacterium, the acetobacter, which – as far as I understand the matter (about as far as I could throw a gallon of barrel-aged sweet Modena) – consumes alcohol and pisses acid; vinegar-making is a process of controlled decay, whereby leftovers, left to rot, turn eventually into a preservative, without which British cuisine would be particularly bereft. The cured items, tracklements, chutneys, ketchups and sauces with which our food is scattered – roll-mops, pickled onions, pickled red cabbage, brown sauce, mint sauce, Branston, and so on – all rely heavily on the clanging collision of sugar and vinegar, with little recourse to simple salting and lactofermentation, as is found in other pickle-heavy cultures (Germany, Turkey, the US); and where would the chip-shop be without vinegar?
My brother, who has always had a love of extreme tastes, used to use malt vinegar, or possibly non-brewed condiment, as a universal seasoning, for which he was roundly mocked, and rightly so; pasta doesn’t need to be drowned in it. Still, he was on to something. A splash of vinegar works wonders on a long-cooked stew, revivifying what was lost in the murk; the magic that chilli sauce works on simply cooked eggs comes as much from the vinegar as from the heat, that welcome touch of sweet and sour. To my mind, seasoning a dish – that final adjustment, as it’s often called in recipes – means not just intensifying our apprehension of flavour with salt, but a balancing of all the basic tastes on the tongue. To a simple tomato sauce, already rich in umami, we might add a pinch of sugar, a little lemon juice or vinegar; bitterness comes from pepper and olive oil, which also contributes the pleasing taste of rich fats.
Come to think of it, forget that tomato sauce – make a salad dressing, one with a little anchovy in it, designed to perk up gentle, buttery salad leaves. Dissolve sugar and salt in good vinegar, add pounded garlic and anchovy, whisk in grassy oil – you have sweetness, salt, a sour kick, heat and deep savour, and a cleansing, fatty bitterness – you have, in other words, a powerful hit of all tastes, which is why (some) salad dressings are so delicious to drink by themselves. Taste, as distinct from aroma, is a real bodily pleasure that puts you firmly in the present. On the other hand, we are told – we know – that smell is the sense most hard-wired into our memories, to the point where it might have been designed for the express purpose of recollection.
Everyone must have had that feeling when, walking along entirely in the here-and-now, you smell an ex-girlfriend’s perfume, or the sweet, submerged scent of chervil and jump back five or fifteen years into the past, which slices through the present like a good knife through sweating fat. Flavour, then, although we experience it as one thing, is a combination of two very different sensations which dance around each other like two pigeons on a tiled roof, tending first one way and then the other, hopefully, in the end, to meet somewhere in the middle. The goal is that the taste lives up to the promises made by the first drifting smells.
his can be particularly hard to achieve when the smell is one happily remembered from childhood, which is why the trend for house-made ketchups, baked beans and so on can be such a minefield – they have such intense early sense-memories to live up to that they must nearly always fall short. The goal is that the opposite happens; that the new, fresher version retroactively transforms your childhood meals, making them seem daring, original and tantalising, in the same way that the most innocuous 50s ballad becomes, after its use in a David Lynch movie, haunting, rich and strange.
I don’t know if this version of brown sauce achieves this universally, but it does for me. HP sauce is a fine thing, the perfect foil to a heavy full English, and a good riposte to anyone who would insult the national palate; how can a country where a spiced date and tamarind sauce is eaten with dry-cured pork as a breakfast item be accused of dullness of cuisine?
This makes rather a lot, but it seems to keep indefinitely (sugar and vinegar there) in the fridge. You could bottle it properly if that’s your thing. It goes extremely well with black pudding, as well as bringing the bacon sandwich one step closer to perfection.
700g chopped onion
800g chopped fresh tomato
250g dried sour cherries
500g light muscovado sugar
1l white wine vinegar
a pint of porter
1 dried chilli
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp cloves
2 star anise
an optional splash of sherry vinegar
Tie up the spices in a little bag or resign yourself to sudden breakfast crunches. Put everything in a big pan, bring to a simmer, and let it putter for two or three hours until soft, cooked and dark. It’ll need some attention to stop it sticking.
Remove the spice bag and blend smooth in batches, adding an optional dash of sherry vinegar to each batch (it perks it up a little). Bottle or fridge, and leave for a week to get to know itself. Apply liberally to cured pork items.