Vinegar is hardly the most alluring ingredient in the kitchen cupboard. In terms of glamour, vinegar is on par with things like corned beef and custard. It carries with it connotations of grandmothers and rationing; household cleaning, even. However, in some quarters, vinegar has been quietly having a bit of a makeover. Not only is it steadily overtaking olive oil as the foodies' new favourite, something for them to obsess over and spend increasingly frightening sums on, there are also ever expanding new varieties. You just need to take a peek at the selection on offer in supermarkets to understand vinegar's new culinary status: balsamic, apple, red wine, white wine, rice, sherry, malt, onion, Asian, the list goes on.
"I think the domestic cook probably pays more attention to vinegar and has more in their cupboards now than they did five years ago," agrees Stephen Gadd, head chef at The Rookery in Clapham, London. "I know it's kind of paramount to cooking in terms of getting the balance of flavours right, but people seem to have become more aware of its potential."
But it's not just using splashes of increasingly exotic vinegars in recipes that is spurring its popularity, it has also been getting a second wind for its use in things like pickling. "Pickles, pickled vegetables, all those sorts of things are so fashionable at the moment. You'll find pickles on tons of menus," continues Gadd. "I'm not entirely sure why it's become so big; I suppose because pickles go really well with meaty flavours. We certainly serve them with lots of our meat dishes, and there have been all these cool pop-up places which serve really rich food, such as Pitt Cue Co with its short ribs, pork belly and pulled pork and Meat Liquor with all its burgers, and with that sort of food you need something that will really cut through it."
Pickling is certainly growing in popularity and in much the same way that conscientious city-dwellers have embraced do-it-yourself hobbies such as herb gardens and knitting, pickling has become – whisper it – fashionable. While it might have been around for centuries, you can blame Brooklyn for embracing the pickle, and turning it from something your father eats to the hipsters' favourite. There, a company called Brooklyn Brine Co distributes its "artisan pickled vegetables" all over America, where they can be found in places such as Whole Foods for $10-12 a jar. That's about £7. For a jar of pickles.
The Wellington Arms, the celebrated pub in Hampshire, pickles its own vegetables to use in the kitchen as well as selling jars of home-made pickles on the bar. "There are lot of farms and orchids around here so we use surplus vegetables and fruit in pickles and jams," says Jason King, its head chef. "Pickling is so simple to do, essentially it's just white wine vinegar, water and sugar." He also advocates recycling pickle juice to use with meats, "It's one of the things you just don't throw away because it's very valuable. Good white wine vinegar is crazy money these days so you don't want to just bin it after use and the flavoured pickle juice works so well when cooking with meat."
As previously mentioned, vinegar also takes centre stage at Pitt Cue Co, the former food truck, which now has a permanent home in Soho, and whose much anticipated opening last month was greeted with round-the-block queues. It has a vast selection of pickles on the menu, and also includes a vinegar slaw as one of the main sides. "It uses cider vinegar, sugar and lemon juice," says Tom Adams, the chef and co-founder. "So our slaw is a lightly pickled salad basically. Something fresh amidst a very meat-centric menu."
And pickles are not just being served in Pitt Cue Co's food dishes; the vinegary pickle juice also forms part of its drinks menu. Its signature cocktail is the pickleback, which consists of a shot of bourbon (although traditionally it uses Jameson Irish Whiskey), followed by a shot of pickle juice (straight from the jar). It might sound like something Charles Bukowski would have drunk but they are weirdly delicious. Picklebacks are another import from Brooklyn, where they originated in the Bushwick Country Club before quickly spreading around America. Incidentally, they are also being served at Lucky Chip, the popular burger wagon opposite London Fields in Hackney where you can find the great and the good of east London hanging out. Also on the cocktail menu at Pitt Cue Co is something called a Big Mac 'n' Rye, a blend of whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters and pickle juice, that, again, tastes far superior than you'd expect.
However, these drinks might not be as weird as they sound. While vinegar doesn't spring to mind when thinking up new drink recipes, it has actually been used in drinks for centuries, its acidic taste making it a suitable alternative to lemon and lime. More recently, mixologists have been bringing back the shrub – a vinegar and fruit infusion used in cocktails. "Shrubs are really taking off here," says Tim Robinson of Twist London, a company that organises party drinks. "A year ago you wouldn't have been able to walk into a bar in the UK and find shrubs on the menu but now there are at least a dozen in London, such as Callooh Callay, the London Cocktail Club and Purl."
So perhaps it really is time to reassess our thoughts on vinegar and its ever-growing varieties. Whether you use it in cocktails, to accompany meat or to pickle leftover veg, you better make sure that there's more in your cupboard than just an old bottle of Sarson's.
35ml of Jameson Irish Whiskey
35ml of juice from a decent jar of pickles
Pour the whiskey into one shot glass, the pickle juice into another.
Take the whiskey shot first, swallow, then immediately take the pickle juice.
Twist London's Modena Berry Shrub
1 pint raspberries
1 pint blackberries
Zest of 1 lemon (large slices, remove the pith)
500ml red wine vinegar
50ml balsamic vinegar
Add the water, fruit, zest and sugar to a saucepan and simmer gently for 20 minutes.
Add both the vinegars and increase the heat – boil for a further five minutes.
Skim and strain the mixture and allow to cool.
Skim and strain again the following day then bottle (glass bottle preferably).
Shrub should keep for a month with no trouble.
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