I have been sitting on this interview for a few weeks now I had so many things to sample from them! I could have just done a stand alone taste test but that is not how these products will be used. They will be incorporated into dishes or used as a dressing or accompaniment and want to try them as intended. My conclusion is good! I will be including a number of the products in future posts so this article acts a overview.

The range of vinegars I tried comprised of:-
Sweet Lemon
Sweet Raspberry
Sweet Horseradish
Sweet Spiced Blackberry
Sweet Basil
Sweet Apple
Sweet Elderberry
9 year old Sweet Plum

Each one of these worked well as a salad dressing when combined with rapeseed oil from Kentish Oils. I particularly liked a salad I made with beef and beetroots to which I added the horseradish dressing. It was delicious! I found the key was to think laterally and how to replace an ingredient with one of the vinegars. One suggestion they make is too top ice cream with it which is an evolution of balsamic vinegar with ice cream and strawberries. The obvious choice here was the 9 year old plum being a bit thicker in consistency. It worked really well providing a balance to the ice cream with its acidity and it’s own sweetness. I found it to be quite moorish.

I made a frittata and used the vinegars in the dressing.

I made a frittata and used the vinegars in the dressing.

The range of vinegars.

The range of vinegars.

The sauces/dips provided an interesting range to choose from. The tomato chilli sauce was very mild so excellent for those who are not that keen on hot foods but still want a slight amount of heat to be evident. The red salsa had a pleasant acidity in contrast to the rich tomato and plum which had a lovely sweetness running through. Perhaps my favourite was the tomato jam which I enjoyed with a chicken, chorizo and chilli frittata. The sweetness mellowed the heat of the chilli perfectly and was a great combination.

The various jars of products including picked pears and onions.

The various jars of products including picked pears and onions.

Finally I was onto the heritage picked onions, ginger pickled pears and spiced picked pears. A ploughman’s is suggested on the jar for the onions whilst the pear jar recommends cheese and charcuterie so it was a pretty easy decision to make a long over due ploughman’s. The picked onions are heritage for a reason as they are just as I remember being very strong and powerful. None of this lightly flavoured and spiced varieties you tend to find these days here! The pears acted as a beautiful balance to this and also to the Colliers Miners Cheddar that I had in the fridge. This is a recent release and offers a strongly flavoured cheddar available in your supermarket.

Scrubby Oak products are amazing with ploughmans.

Scrubby Oak products are amazing with ploughmans.

Do you have any quirky stories you can share?
One such comes to mind. It was when we first used a ” Vinegar Mother ” to make our Plum Vinegar. We inoculated the batch of plum with spores we had obtained from the wild as there was and perhaps still isn’t anywhere you can obtain them commercially. We waited for them to take and the Mother to grow not quite sure what it might look like as it’s appearance in a liquid is totally different to what it looks like on plums on the tree. After some weeks we took a look at the batch to find a rather unpleasant looking mass of leathery slime the same colour as the plums floating in the liquid. Our first instinct was to throw the batch out assuming it had gone wrong, however upon trying the liquid beneath with some trepidation we discovered that it had indeed turned into Plum Vinegar, further tests on acidity levels confirmed that our taste buds were right. We had indeed created our first batch of Plum Vinegar.

Tell me about how you started up.
We started the business in August 2005 using what cooking utensils we already had in our kitchen and some ten litre plastic buckets with lids we purchased to ” grow ” the Vinegars in. We had been making the Fruit Vinegars for several years before for use in our home recipes. It took us until October that year for the first vinegars to be ready to try out on the public, which we did at the Farmers Market at Earsham Hall in Suffolk. The vinegars were initially packaged in rather plain looking Opera bottles, which looked like a pop bottle with a cork top.

We had no idea as to how they would be received by the public, however as it turned out they got a good reception once we explained what their many culinary uses were. The four Varieties of Fruit Vinegar we took along sold very well and as a bonus we acquired our first retailer Delaval Astley for his organic farm shop “Back to The Garden ” in Leatheringset, Norfolk, who once he had tried them put an order in there and them.

From that point on we knew that we were onto a winner. Since those early days we have grown the range of Vinegars to a total of twenty two, which includes such delights as Lavender, Horseradish (all the flavour without the heat for delicate dishes of fish) and Elderberry the king of the Vinegars for game dishes. Now in our tenth year we offer a much expanded range of products most made using our vinegars in the recipes which includes Chutneys, Dips, Salsas Vinaigrettes, Pickled Fruit and three types of Pickled Onion including our invention of the ” Pudding Onion” A sweet pickled onion that tastes like Mulled Wine and may be eaten with Rich Fruit Cake, Ice cream and Mince pies in addition to charcuterie and Fine Cheeses.

All our products are still hand made using only whole natural ingredients and are Gluten, Nut and artificial additive free and yes we still work from home, though not the original one the business sprang from.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we learnt was never be afraid to approach the big players in the packaging world for fear that we would be considered too small and insignificant for them to deal with. The original supplier of our gift/trio packs boxes turned out to be getting his raw materials, box cutting jigs and design expertise from a multi national packaging company. When our original supplier went bust we approached the multi national and discovered this and that for another £200 we could get 12,000 boxes made compared to the 1,000 we were having made by our original box company. We have since became very adept at seeking out suppliers who can offer us a better deal on ingredients and packaging, without compromising the quality of either.

How do you go about making experimental batches?
We have tried a number of new Vinegar types over the years some on a whim some at the request of our customers who would like new flavours to try. As a rule of thumb if a new vinegar proves popular in sales at Food Markets then it becomes part of our range. The first batch tends to be around 5 litres just enough to get an idea as to how it works in production and sells. If it turns out not to sell too well then we use it in our home cooking.

What made you decide to make the vinegars and preserves?
My wife Debbie and I both come from country families who have a long history of making preserves of all kinds and so it was a natural progression to start making them commercially. The vinegars were used in home cooking (we both cook) for several years, though I had begun to use them as part of marinades and cures for old breeds meats and Game I was planning to smoke. We had tried them out at dinner parties on our friends for years and wondered if the public in general might enjoy them as they are so versatile in puddings and main course dishes. The rest of the preserves we make were a natural progression over the last ten years. We wanted to offer the public a real alternative to the mass produced preserves that too often look the part with clever packaging only to disappoint in terms of taste when tried and have to be kept in the fridge so as not to grow a bloom of mould in a week. We in comparison make our preserves to the standard of our grandparents using the right ingredients at the correct strength, making them extremely tasty with the ability to last for a long time in the kitchen cupboard once opened and not the fridge.

Our products are hand made, with real whole ingredients and do not rely upon artificial colours, flavours and preservatives, enhancers etc to give them a stunning taste and long shelf life. The heavy reliance upon machinery and high pressure processing lines in big factories often results in a loss of the natural flavour and colour of preserves which then have to be replaced by artificial ones in the manufacturing process. It’s very much a case of you get what you pay for in the world of preserves.

Robin & Debbie Slade.
www.scrubbyoakfinefoods.co.uk