2017 was a year of the rise of fermentations; it’s been a ‘food trend’ for a while now, in products such as kombucha tea or kimchi pickle, or just the general renaissance in pickles and chutneys (presumably because those with a passion can become artisan producers relatively easily) or the growth in cuisines such as Japanese, Malay or Vietnamese. Whatever, there is an alchemical magic to these microscopic transformations: with yeast, with bacteria, with oxygen – and time, always time.
Vinegar is the golden thread for me: the sweet but sharp tang of apple cider vinegar; the bold, cleansing aromatic hit of a good malt vinegar; the sharp astringency of distilled vinegar, or the rounded crispness of a vinegar from wine. And I am drawn to any product with vinegar at its heart: a relish; pickled veg, a spice-infused chutney, dark, sweet, pungent – and in particular mustard.
Yesterday, the news came out that Colman’s, the famous British mustard brand, is leaving its long time home, Norwich, where it’s been made for over 170 years. Behind the move of course, is money and whilst new jobs in new locations are touted and some preserved in the city, more will be lost. One of those beneficiaries will be Burton-upon-Trent where the Marmite production line will have to budge up to make space for Colman’s production. Burton’s local MP is already trumpeting his catalysing powers: he’s as “keen as mustard to meet with Unilever” (Colman’s owner) and presumably even keener to make it look like he was behind the move all along (and claim the credit for the jobs created). Politicians are as Politicians do I suppose – what’s interesting though is how in a small way, Colman’s coming to Burton is more of a return. Time was when the holy trinity of fermentation: beer, vinegar, mustard, would be located on the same road. And still today the processes are clearly related – look at Sarson’s latest press advertising for instance. Substitute ‘Sarson’s’ for ‘Marston’s’ and the ad would still make sense – you could even try a nip of Pedigree on your chips if you’re game (Sarson’s described themselves as ‘Vinegar Brewers’ for many years).
It was equally common across Europe – a few years ago I visited the small but vibrant Gulpener brewery in the Limburg region of The Netherlands. The brewery, set in cottage-like buildings either side of the main east-west road connecting Germany to Belgium, today houses just a brewery. But previously that brewery had been on one side, a vinegar maker on the other (the width of the road perhaps just enough to guard against the souring acetobacter invading the beer brewhouse) and a hop skip and jump down the road was the mustard production. Chatting to the then Managing Director, Paul Rutten, he was interested in starting collaborating on mustards again, whilst round the corner, in a local bar, the brewery had installed a wild fermentation brew kit to renew brewing a lost beer style local to that area ‘Mestreechs aajt’ – closely related to the wild, sour beers of Belgium today – and if you’re not too careful – to vinegar too.
(I found this image on t’internet. Maybe Paul managed it)