But, this being the start of the onion-pickling season, this is the week that British malt vinegar comes good. Over 100 million baby onions will soon be stuffed into jars, and the pickling season will be followed at once by the chutney season. Chutney, pickles and relishes must surely count among Britain's serious contributions to the world kitchen.
In the olden days, when Mediterranean countries revelled in the benefits of soured wine, we made do with gooseberry juice and the unfermented juice of green grapes, verjuice (vert-jus), or honegar, from fermenting honey. Then in the Middle Ages we annexed from our German neighbours the sour, malted liquid used in the ale-making process. It was first known as alegar and beeregar, but malt vinegar was the name that eventually stuck.
Our use of it was hardly sophisticated. An Italian living in England during the reign of Elizabeth I noted that all salads were drowning in vinegar, with no oil or salt or anything added to modify its raw ferocity. It wasn't until the days of the Raj that malt vinegar started being combined with spices, sugar and fruit to make chutneys and relishes, and vinegar came into its own, not only as a flavouring but as a preservative.
This is well-understood in Scandinavia (rollmops are preserved in a vinegar- based marinade) and in the Mediterranean, where the summer heat quickly spoils food.
One famous dish is escabeche, in which boiled, spiced vinegar is poured over fried fresh sardines or anchovies, and left to cool. Historians have traced this way of using vinegar, via Italy to Persia. Caponata (see right), Sicily's most famous dish, also belongs to this tradition. Sicilians often eat it with octopus or shellfish. In this recipe from Valentina Harris's new book, Italia, Italia (Cassell, pounds 18.99), due out next month, she chooses pine-kernels.
RED AND WHITE WINE VINEGARS The best tend to come from France, particularly from Orleans, where they adhere to the old tradition of maturing it slowly, blending new wine with matured vinegar in barrels. The red is slightly stronger than the white, though both can be used in dressings and vinaigrettes. You need a good white wine vinegar to make the sauce for steak Bearnaise, simmering chopped shallots and fresh herbs such as tarragon in the vinegar until it becomes syrupy. Strain, and beat over a double pan into egg yolks to make an emulsion. Finish with butter.
MALT VINEGAR A splendid British vinegar, though it is important to cook out the fierceness. Not to be confused with the stuff used to douse chips, which is a non-brewed condiment - a cheap substitute of acetic acid, coloured brown.
HERBED VINEGARS Tarragon and basil vinegar are two of the most useful, both in cooking and dressings. It's easy to make your own, steeping lightly bruised fresh herbs in wine vinegar for four or five days, then straining and rebottling.
FRUIT VINEGARS These are wine vinegars in which fruit has been steeped to capture its fragrance in the same way as the herbs. The possibilities are infinite but raspberry became the chic choice in the Eighties.
CIDER VINEGAR The boy among men, but pleasing and tasty.
SHERRY VINEGAR The chef's choice. These vinegars are complex and rich. They are particularly good for deglazing pans after frying meat, offal, chicken and even fish.
BALSAMIC VINEGAR Almost more sweet than sour. Not truly a vinegar at all, but a grape must (juice) boiled to concentrate its flavour. It is matured in the solera system, which involves passing the vinegar through a succession of barrels (made of oak, apple-wood, mulberry and so on). Some of these vinegars have been aged for 25, 50 and a 100 years, and have prices to match. A drop or two of the best is enough to lift a dressing; a dribble will enhance the flavour of chargrilled meat or fish.
CHINESE VINEGAR This is made from rice and other grains, and is commonly used in Chinese sweet-sour dishes. It can be bought in Chinatown stores. Most prized are the black vinegars from Zhejiang, such as Gold Plum Chinkiang, which is particularly good for accentuating the heat in hot-sour dishes.
JAPANESE RICE-WINE VINEGAR (yamabukusu) Sweet and savoury, this is essential for making sushi rice rolls and is mixed into the special Japanese sticky rice as it cools after cooking. You can make an approximation of this vinegar by taking 8fl oz white vinegar and adding three tablespoons each of sugar and salt, and - this is not PC - a pinch of MSG.
VINAGRE AGRIDULCE A new wave Spanish "vinegar" made by Forum in El Vendrell, near Tarragona. Ten per cent of fresh grape must is added each year to maturing wine vinegar to give a lighter, sweetened taste, making it ideal for dressings. It is available from the Sainsbury's Special Selection range (pounds 3.99 for 25cl), Harvey Nichols and selected Conran stores.
Take in chutney recipe to come).
And now here the most famous dish in all Sicily, a caponata, an aubergine salad to eat warm or cold. Sicilians make it in vast quantities for it keeps well. For Sunday best, Sicilians are apt to garnish it with tasty morsels, octopus, shellfish, crumbled botarga roe. In this refined recipe from Valentina Harris's new book, Italia, Italia (Cassell pounds 18. 99) due out next month, she sticks to pine kernels.
AUBERGINE AND OLIVE SALAD (CAPONATA)
900g/2lb aubergines, cubed
1 tablespoon salt
100ml/312fl oz olive oil
40g/112oz onion, chopped
250g/9oz assorted pickles such as onions, peppers and gherkins
25g/1oz salted capers, rinsed
6 celery leaves (or heart), chopped
50g/2oz green olives, stoned
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 wine glass of red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons pine kernels
Cover the cubed aubergines with salt, put them in a colander in the sink and leave them to drain out their bitter juices for about an hour (longer if possible). Wash and dry them thoroughly. Divide the olive oil between two deep pans. Fry the aubergine cubes in one pan until soft and well- coloured, then remove from the pan and leave to drain on kitchen paper. In the other, fry the onion, pickles, capers, celery leaves and olives over a low heat for about 15 minutes. Add the sugar and wine vinegar and let the fumes of the wine vinegar evaporate for a minute or so, then stir in the aubergines and pine kernels. Heat through and serve warm, or leave to cool and serve cold.
TRADITIONAL APPLE CHUTNEY
The cheapest of all chutneys, using windfall fruit. Makes about 10lb/5kg
Approximately 2kg/4lb apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1kg/2lb pears, ditto
1kg /2lb plums, stoned and chopped
500g/1lb onions, finely chopped
250g/12lb stoned raisins
1.2l/2 pints malt vinegar
2kg/4lb soft brown sugar
2 tablespoons salt
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 (or more) dried chillies, crumbled
10cm/4in fresh ginger, grated
1 tablespoon cloves
Simmer the onions (and pears, if hard) in a little water until soft. Drain. Put all the fruit and onions in a preserving pan, add the vinegar, and simmer over very low heat for an hour. Tie the spices in a piece of muslin, add the sugar and salt, and, stirring well, simmer very slowly until thick and brown. Bottle in sterilised jars with non-corrosive lids while still warm. Improves with age.