IT WAS possibly Fanny Craddock who first insisted that there was only one use for malt vinegar: cleaning the fridge. Nonsense - there are many more uses, according to a new pamphlet issued by the Vinegar Information Service: stripping furniture; shining chrome taps; descaling kettles; loosening brushes stiffened with dry paint (just stand them in a jar of hot vinegar).
And then there are its medicinal uses: to take out bruises (poulticed with brown paper, it was the remedy used by Jack and Jill after they tumbled down the hill); or as a cough cure (slice onions into rings, cover with brown sugar, dribble with malt vinegar, stand, then strain the juice).
You can also pickle onions with it. This week happens to be the start of the pickling season, and at a conservative estimate we will be pickling 100 million onions in the next few weeks, entirely in malt vinegar.
But for cooking in general, malt vinegar has become desperately unfashionable over the years, a homegrown product losing out at the expense of imported red and white wine vinegars. Malt vinegar sales have remained static while those of speciality vinegars are escalating.
Grocers' shelves are overflowing with every sort of vinegar imaginable, from upmarket Fortnum & Mason (a new range of six speciality vinegars was introduced this month) to superstores such as Asda, (whose speciality vinegar sales leapt by more than 60 per cent last year). Anything goes - champagne vinegar, sherry vinegar, rose-petal vinegar, garlic vinegar, cider vinegar, honegar (flavoured with honey), and especially herb and fruit-flavoured vinegars such as tarragon, thyme, rosemary, lavender or raspberry.
There is sweet white Japanese rice vinegar, used to season the sticky rice rolls of sushi, stuffed with raw fish. There is Chinese brown rice vinegar (House of Lee is a brand to look out for) which is sweet-and-sour, like balsamic vinegar. And then there's balsamic vinegar itself, the cru classe of vinegar.
A few years ago none of us had heard of it. Now Sainsbury's do it as an own-label balsamic vinegar ( pounds 1.89 for 250ml). If you think that's exorbitant you should take a look in Fortnum & Mason, who sell a 40-year- old one at pounds 114 for 250ml.
But are we being hasty, dumping our own heritage? As an ale-drinking nation malt vinegar is what we know, an acetic acid made by souring a must made from malted barley. The process was largely developed some 200 years ago by Sarson's, who are today's market-leaders.
Sarson's Bill Grierson points out that malt vinegar is central to the traditional British way of eating, the essential ingredient in the nation's table sauces, Daddy's, HP and OK. Even our much-prized Worcester sauce started as a barrel of malt vinegar, tempered with soy sauce, anchovies, garlic and spices. The gentleman who experimented with this relish found it unpalatable at first and it remained untouched for three years. Then it was miraculously found to have matured into the sauce we honour today.
Given that many top British chefs regard malt vinegar with contempt, Grierson has been fortunate to find an ally in Sonia Stevenson, whom Egon Ronay has described as the foremost female cook in Britain.
She has just retired from the Michelin-starred Horn of Plenty, in Gulworthy, Devon, which she ran for 25 years with her husband, Patrick. She now runs cookery classes.
'Malt vinegar is a very English taste,' she says. 'We love sweet-sour things, and the French loathe them. It probably comes from our Indian connection. You can't make chutneys and pickle vegetables and fruit without malt vinegar. They don't work with wine vinegar.'
Sonia Stevenson thinks there is a prejudice against malt vinegar, but suspects it is because people don't cook out its fierceness. 'It's the same for any vinegar. If you make a bearnaise sauce, you must cook the vinegar down to a mere drop or two. People will not reduce it nearly enough to remove the kick.'
Oily fish cook well in malt vinegar. She souses herrings or mackerel using a mixture of half and half malt vinegar and water, putting the split fish in a baking tray, smothered with sliced onions, peppercorns, allspice and a bay leaf, and a touch of cochineal for colour. She bakes them in the lowest oven for several hours till they turn opaque and either serves them hot or leaves them to cool in their liquid.
Using distilled (colourless) malt vinegars Sonia Stevenson pickles mixed raw vegetables (blanched in boiling water first to inhibit enzyme activity), salted in brine for two hours, then bottled in seasoned vinegar (vinegar boiled to remove the kick, seasoned with spices such as mace, allspice, chilli or cloves).
The other secret of using malt vinegar is to balance its acidity with sugar (which is the essence of making chutney). She uses this principle to make a vinaigrette to marinate boned fillets of Loch Fyne kippers overnight. You blend or liquidise 1 pint of groundnut oil, 4 tablespoons malt vinegar, 3 tablespoons of sugar and 4 ounces of Dijon mustard. Serve as a first course.
But it is chutney and pickled fruits she regards as particularly English; she considers it folly to turn our backs on a great tradition. The range of British chutneys is almost infinite, with tangy combinations of apple, onion, marrow, plum, green tomato, mango, date, banana, beetroot, gooseberry, lemon, peach and rhubarb. With pickled fruits, too, there is a great variety to choose from - peaches, pears, plums, apples, cherries, nectarines, lemons, figs and quinces. They are so easy to make: simply simmer in spiced, sweet-sour vinegar syrups and then bottle in the slightly condensed liquid.
4lb Conference pears
1 pint distilled malt vinegar
2 teaspoons whole cloves
2 teaspoons allspice berries
1 stick of cinnamon
1in fresh ginger root, peeled, sliced
3 strips of lemon peel
Peel, core, and quarter pears. Set aside in water with a little vinegar to prevent discolouring. Put the remaining ingredients in a saucepan over a low heat, stirring till sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil. Add the pears, and simmer very gently for 20 minutes until transparent and cooked. Remove pears; strain syrup and then boil for 15 to 20 minutes to reduce to half a pint. Put the pears in sterilised jars, and cover with the syrup, adding the cinnamon and lemon peel. Ready to eat after two weeks.
4lb pickling onions
1/2 pint cold water
2 pints pickling malt vinegar (pre-spiced)
Make a brine solution with the salt and water. Peel the onions, put them in a bowl and cover with the brine, then leave for 24 hours. Drain, rinse and pat dry. Put into sterilised jars, and cover with cold pickling vinegar (dissolve the sugar in it if you're using it). Seal with non-corrosive lids. Ready to eat after two weeks, best within six months.
For using up windfalls and less than ripe plums, makes about 10lb.
1lb onions finely chopped
4lb cooking apples, peeled, cored, chopped
2lb pears, ditto
2lb plums, stoned and chopped
1/2 lb sultanas
1/2 lb stoned raisins
2 pints malt vinegar
2 tablespoons of salt
2 dry red chillies, crumbled
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
4in fresh ginger, shredded
1 tablespoon cloves
4lb soft brown sugar
Keep the chopped apples and pears in water acidulated with a tablespoon of vinegar. Simmer the onion (and the pears, if very hard) in a little water till soft. Drain. Put all the fruit with the onions in a preserving pan with a very little water, and bring to the boil, stirring well. Lower the heat and simmer for up to an hour till mixture is a brown mush. Add the sugar and simmer very slowly, till rich, brown and thick. Bottle while still hot in jars with non-corrosive lids. Keep several months to mature. It continues to improve with age.
For 'The Vinegar Guide' send sae to Vinegar Information Service, 21 Westminster Palace Gardens, Artillery Row, London SWIP 1RR.
Sonia Stevenson's cookery classes, tel: 081-677 1172.
In last week's recipe for Imperial chutney we omitted to explain when to add the 2 pints of malt vinegar. The correct procedure is to simmer the fruit and onions in a little water until very soft (up to half an hour). Add the vinegar and spices and cook on lowest heat for up to an hour until the mixture is a brown mush. Then add the sugar. The rest of the recipe is as published.