Most of us have ordered fish and chips. Most of use reach for that bottle of malt vinegar when we do. It becomes a habit.
But say you call for something else—bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, or maybe a dish not even remotely British, such as chicken tikka masala.
Oh, yeah—that’s British, too.
The point is, that bottle just loiters on the table until the next person orders fish and chips. Otherwise, malt vinegar seems to have little culinary purpose.
“You can clean copper pots with it, mixing it with salt,” observers Christine Treves, a bartender at Cooper’s Pub & Restaurant on Cannery Row.
“My mother,” she explains with a laugh. “It’s an old Irish thing.”
Apart from an occasional swab on copper, however, staff at local pubs admit that malt vinegar use is limited to the British staple. Every so often, a patron dashes some on a side order of fries. For the most part, malt vinegar is just there for fish and chips.
Still, pubs go through a lot of the stuff. Just about every moderately-priced place (as well as a few of the more credit-sapping restaurants), serves fish and chips. Cooper’s bills theirs as the best in town. The Weekly’s readers point to London Bridge Pub, at least in annual Best of Monterey Bay balloting. Peter B’s pours their own beer to whip up the fish and chips batter. The owners devoted naming rights to the dish at Fish & Chips in Salinas—and there are two locations.
This could go on and on.
“It’s just so good,” says Christine Kerr, owner of Bulldog British Pub on Lighthouse Ave. in Monterey. “It just reminds me of home—fish and chips in a newspaper, it gets all soggy.”
Kerr estimates that patrons empty at least two bottles a week, even though the vinegar is applied lightly. “We go through a lot of fish and chips,” she adds.
According to data from Persistence Market Research, the global market for malt vinegar grew at a rate of 4.9 percent a year during the middle part of this decade and is expected to reach 5.5 percent year-to-year by 2024.
They also measured the metric tons shipped each year, but we don’t do metric system conversion in this office. Besides, a few years ago a YouTube video by posted by Tom Scott and titled “The Fake Vinegar in British Fish and Chip Shops” caused a national—over there—sensation. Reporters who followed up found that indeed, many fish and chip shops in England replaced natural malt vinegar with a lip-smacking blend of ethanoic acid, water, artificial colour...sorry, color...and artificial flavors.
“People care about the quality of their fish, not the quality of their vinegar,” Birmingham fish and chippy owner Tony Georgiou told The Guardian in 2016.
Clearly not much of a condiment fan, that guy.
So even with British shops stocking whatever kind of acid that was instead of the real thing, shipments of malt vinegar continue to climb. And yet the numbers, the association with fish and chips, the scandal—none of it addresses this week’s question.
“You can use it to make salad dressing,” Treves says. “It’s a vinegar like any other.”
But is it? Malt vinegar carries a refined savor, like a dark beer with impressions of malted grain, mild nuts and cured citrus resting under the acidic blade of vinegar. This is because it's derived from ale allowed to turn rancid—to become vinegar.
In fact, before consumer marketing people had their say, malt vinegar was once known as alegar.
Anyway, it’s not violently sharp, like white vinegar, and not as intense as balsamic. Yet the resulting flavor is potent enough to douse delicate ingredients. However, against potatoes or fried fish (particularly beer-battered fish) malt vinegar becomes truly melodic.
And it does have other uses. Bon Appétit, for instance, published a recipe for malt vinegar-glazed chicken. It is often found in marinades and chutneys. Some people drizzle it lightly on grilled salmon or more heavily on roasted potatoes. It’s even the vinegar of choice for pickled walnuts.
Yep. Pickled walnuts. And if you’ve never heard of them, you just didn’t read closely during those English literature classes.
How’s this, from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: “We presently stopped at an inn, which was half farm also, and ate eggs and bacon, pickled walnuts and cheese, and drank our beer in a sunless parlor.”
Or this, from one of Charles Dickens’ books that's not A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist: “After they had bled him, the first faint glimmerings of returning animation, were his jumping up in bed, bursting out into a loud laugh, kissing the young woman who held the basin, and demanding a mutton chop and a pickled walnut.”
Damn they used a lot of commas back then.
So that’s it. Burning Question answered. There are other uses for malt vinegar besides fish and chips, but if you ask around people struggle to come up with them. The combination is just so right.
And your gleaming copper will impress any houseguests.