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Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Product Review: Virtual Orchard Cider Vinegar

I get through a lot of vinegar during the course of a year and at any one time I will have in my cupboard malt, distilled, white wine, red wine, cider and balsamic vinegar. Each has its own uses, offering particular flavours and colours to a recipe. The flavour of any chutney is the combination (and culmination) of the fruit and vegetables, sugar, vinegar and spices. The careful selection of the ingredients and the care taken over preparation has a distinct impact on the result. None of these things should be taken lightly, not least the quality of the vinegar.

I use cider vinegar in many of my chutney recipes; with it going particularly well in any chutney that is fruit rather than vegetables based - those with apples and plums in particular. A good cider vinegar will add to the fruitiness of the flavours, whilst the colour of the vinegar will not mask those of the fruit in the way that malt or balsamic vinegar would. There are, of course, occasions when a dark brown chutney is desired and this can be achieved with the use of dark vinegar and dark sugar. On other occasions, the fruit or vegetable has a colour to be appreciated, such as beetroot or tomatoes, where it would be a distinct loss to cloud it in dark brown. This is when white wine or cider vinegar is desirable.

Cider vinegar is not, however, just for chutney making. It has many culinary uses such as in salad dressings, for pepping up vegetables and even in baking. However, if you care to search "uses of apple cider vinegar" on the internet you will find that it is a general cure-all, being able to do everything from aiding digestion, helping you to lose weight, combating diabetes, improving your complexion, removing warts, cleaning your hair and aiding a sore throat, and can be used as a general household cleaner. It is even fed to dogs and horses to improve the glossiness of their coat.

In the UK, Aspall pretty much has a monopoly on the cider vinegar market as far as supermarkets are concerned. You may be lucky enough to get a supermarket own brand for white wine vinegar but less so for cider vinegar. Given the lack of choice, this was the brand of cider vinegar I used for many years and was largely happy with it - having very little to compare it to. However, being friends with Laurence from Virtual Orchard cidery, I asked him whether he had ever considered branching out into the production of cider vinegar alongside his cider, apple juice, apple brandy etc. Although keen, he was also a little cautious as it would require introducing "spoilage" microbes to a vat of cider. A shame for the cider... and what if it were to contaminate other vats?

Whilst Laurence contemplated vinegar making, I went on holiday to France; to Normandy, to be precise where they celebrate apples, Calvados, cider and vinegar in a way unlike the UK. They are very proud of the apple products and rightly so. Whilst there, where other people might fill up their trolleys with wine, I filled mine up with vinegar. I couldn't help wondering if the French people in the shop were looking at me in kind sympathy, thinking I had misunderstood the labels and had mistaken it for cheap plonk! Oddly, the French stock cider vinegar and red wine vinegar but never white wine vinegar - I don't know why.

Anyway, back home I discovered that even this cheap supermarket branded cider vinegar from France was superior to Aspall's. So for several years I have stocked up on vinegar from France whenever we go over or I ask my parents to bring me some back whenever they nip over to Calais for a "booze cruise".To my mind, you can tell a better quality product by the complexity of the flavour profile. With vinegar, if all you get is a flat harshness then it is a poor quality product. It should have several levels of fruit flavours in there as well as the sourness of the vinegar and this is evident in the French vinegar.

Tasting vinegar is a tricky business. When I go to events I often have tasters out and see other producers doing the same. I offer my jams and chutneys with tiny breadsticks so that there is more in the mouth than just the jam or chutney but nothing with a strong flavour of its own to get in the way. And we are all familiar with pieces of cheese or morsels of sausage on cocktail sticks.  Laurence offers samples of cider in little shot glasses and people are happy to down these. But how would you go about tasting something as sourly sharp as vinegar? As it happens, I found this out in September when at Upton Smokery for a tasting event and was presented with a little sample of balsamic vinegar in a shot glass. I eyed it suspiciously before daring to put it to my lips but it was so smooth and tasty that it was on a par with some sharp sherries. In contrast, when I tried doing the same back home with the French cider vinegar it felt like it was burning my throat as it went down! Not for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached! A reminder as to why chutneys should be matured for 6 weeks or more before consuming.

So finally, this autumn Laurence proudly presented me with a bottle of his cider vinegar for me to try. It came in a very attractive 100ml bottle with a stopper and boasted being unfiltered and containing "mother" on the label. The "mother" is a bundle of yeast, enzymes and other biological components that can be seen as a sort of cloudiness. Some people might find this off-putting and would prefer their vinegar pasteurised and filtered. For those, I would say, go back to using Aspall vinegar as this is what they offer. However, only the finest, best quality cider vinegar contains the mother and it is a sign of quality as well as better nutritional content.

The mother is also the key ingredient as far as all the above health claims are concerned. You will not be able to improve your complexion or make your horse's coat shine without the mother. As such, Laurence's unfiltered vinegar with mother is a premium product, as suggested by the beautiful presentation bottle and small quantity it comes in. However, you won't find Laurence promoting the vinegar as a health product or making claims about what it can do for your digestive system or warts but not because he would say that it can't do these things but because it would be illegal for him to do so. Even though many believe, for example, that eating local honey can help relieve hay-fever symptoms, it is would be against the law for your local bee-keeper to plaster this claim on their label. To make any kind of health claim on a food product needs formal, legal approval by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Department of Health (DH) and for this to be granted it has to be supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence (i.e. not just what someone posted on the internet). This may seem a bit over the top but I for one am glad that it is hard-work for food producers in general to put health benefit claims on their food as the food market place is a confusing enough place anyway without unsubstantiated claims making it onto our labeling. It is up to you, therefore, to decide if you think unfiltered cider vinegar (with mother) would help you with whatever health issue concerns you.

That aside, I am concerned with how it tastes. Having gingerly sipped some, I can confirm that it has a beautifully complex flavour profile and there are still flavours in there that hark back to the original cider and apples that it comes from. It didn't even burn on the way down so I sipped some more! It is certainly something I would enjoy on my chips or salad and even made the French cider vinegar seem harsh in comparison. I think I shall be having a word with Laurence to see what sort of deal he can do for bulk buying it so that I can use it in my chutney as I think it has a lot to offer flavour-wise, as well, of course, as being locally sourced rather than from France - something I'm passionate about. In the meantime, I'm carefully selecting uses for my little bottle and having made "Normandy Pork" with 3 tablespoons I'm now undecided whether to make a salad dressing or use the vinegar to improve my complexion!

Virtual Orchard Unfiltered Cider Vinegar (with mother) is available direct from Virtual Orchard at Galleon Wharf, Old Wolverton priced at £4.50 per 100ml bottle.

Normandy Pork (serves 4 to 6 when served with potatoes and vegetables)

600g pork shoulder
20g seasoned flour
1 large leek
2 carrots
Half a celery stick
65g pancetta
100ml apple juice
3 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 apples, peeled, cored and cut into pieces
400ml chicken stock
3 tablespoons single cream
1 teaspoon English mustard or 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons cornflour

Preheat oven to 150°C and get out a suitable casserole dish with lid. Cut the pork into chunks and prepare the vegetables to sizes of your liking. Toss the pieces of pork in the seasoned flour and heat some oil in a frying pan. In batches, fry the pork to brown the outside then place in the casserole dish. Fry the vegetables in the pan for 5 minutes until just softened then put this into the casserole dish. Fry the pancetta until browned. Mix together the apple juice, vinegar and 100ml of water then pour this into the pan. Let it bubble for a minute, scrapping the bottom of the pan with a spatula then pour this into the casserole dish. Add the apple to the pan with the stock to heat through then pour this into the dish too. Cover and place the dish in the oven for 3 hours to cook. Mix together the cream, mustard and cornflour and when the 3 hours are up, pour this into the casserole dish and stir through. Turn the oven up to 200°C and return the casserole to the oven for 15 minutes without a lid on to thicken. Serve hot with mashed potato and additional vegetables.

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