It all started with a few tiny bottles, small enough to slip into my hand luggage without causing suspicion at the airport.
It all started with a few tiny bottles, small enough to slip into my hand luggage without causing suspicion at the airport. Next thing I knew, my initial curiosity had developed into a full-blown obsession. I was finding just about any excuse to pop the baby-sized corks and drizzle a few drops into anything from my daily vinaigrette to gazpacho, while at the same time trying to make my precious supply last as long as possible.
Just as I was shaking out the dregs in a slightly despairing way, it was time to get on a plane and meet the makers of these extraordinary fruit vinegars, who happen to live in the same town as my parents in southeast England. Eastbourne, the sleepy seaside town where I spent many summers as a child and landed my first newspaper job at the age of 17, is not a place I would ordinarily consider a source of inspiring ingredients: my idea of a treat while growing up was tooth-breaking sticks of rock candy from the pier or fish and chips greasy enough to soak through the articles I'd written. But Britain has changed, and the success of a small vinegar company operating out of a home kitchen proves my theory that quality rarely goes unrecognized.
Mary and John Stratton live in a Victorian house surrounded by a garden that is not as unruly as it might first appear. Here, I soon learn, there is little that happens by accident. John, who formerly managed the restaurant and bars at a university residence and also taught food hygiene, brings precision and an unusually sensitive palate to the business; Mary, a schoolteacher in her previous life, loves to flip through recipe books seeking fresh ideas. A glut of redcurrants from her mother's garden provided the original inspiration 25 years ago - not knowing what to do with them, she eventually found a recipe for sweet vinegar in an old English cookbook and adjusted the sugar to her taste. Stratta's most popular vinegar was born, though she didn't yet know it. She continued to make the vinegar every year for a growing circle of fans until her grown-up children encouraged her to start selling it at the local farmers' markets.
Four years ago Mary gave up her job to devote her time to vinegar, and there hasn't been a sour moment since. This year Stratta is one of 18 finalists in the Waitrose "Made in Britain" competition, which has already led to national recognition. For the moment, John and Mary are still able to work out of their custom-designed kitchen and converted garage, whose floors are stacked with white buckets designed for making beer while the shelves contain neat rows of bottles. They now sell more than a dozen fruit and flower vinegars, as well as olive oil infused with herbs and spices, flavored sugars and lemons preserved in salt. Mary's enthusiasm is infectious and it's not surprising that she has made so many converts with products like raspberry-lavender vinegar, which must be tasted to be believed.
Stratta's vinegars taste like the very essence of the fruit, and with good reason. Mary and John start with high-quality white wine vinegar from the English company Aspall and add an equal weight of fruit, which they steep for as long as it takes to extract all its flavor. For raspberries this can take up to two weeks, though few vinegar makers would bother to wait that long. They then filter the vinegar as many times as it takes for it to come out perfectly clear, before sweetening it to taste with blond cane sugar. The secret lies, of course, in the quality of the fruit and flowers. The lavender and mulberries come from their garden; other fruits (presumably not the mangoes) are sourced at local farms. They are especially proud of their medlar vinegar, made with an ancient fruit related to rosehip that I sometimes see in Nice by the name of nèfle. When a fruit crop is small, they simply make less of that type of vinegar.
The Strattons suggest all sorts of uses for their vinegars, from marinating meats to adding a spoonful to tomato sauce, but because my supply is still a bit limited I've been reserving it lately mostly for vinaigrettes. Morello cherry vinegar with either pistachio oil or mint-infused olive oil is a favorite at the moment, and I love the mulberry vinegar with delicate Nice olive oil (it turns out that mulberry trees were once common in the back country here, though most have been cut down). I've never been very enamored with balsamic vinegar (except for the really expensive stuff), and even less so now that I can dip bread in olive oil mixed with raspberry or damson vinegar.
If you live in the UK and would like to get your hands on some Stratta vinegar, check the stockists page on their website. Otherwise, you might like to try making fruit vinegar by following the instructions above. John assures me that it's easy, though the price of fruit in Nice this summer has discouraged me from trying it so far. Surprisingly, I've found no fruit vinegar in France that can measure up to Stratta's. Who knows, maybe we'll be seeing it in the Bon Marché's gourmet supermarket one day?