For such an intangible thing, it’s hard to call time an integral ingredient. One, indeed, that mass manufacturing forgets. Industrial producers often copy traditional time-consuming processes with short-cut methods, from plastic-wrapped ‘aged’ beef to brine-injected bacon to quick-rising breads. Hugh Thomas interviews the people bucking the trend for quick…
4 small food producers putting time into what they make
W O W T H A T ‘ S S L O W . . .
1. Balsamic vinegar – with time, more than just a salad dressing
Perhaps we don’t think of it as worth much more than the odd drizzle before it gets returned to the back of the cupboard. But when right, balsamic vinegar can be just as prized as a good wine. And consumed as such as well – those £200 bottles the well-off bring back from holiday in Modena? Those aren’t for drizzling over salads. Oh no. They’re for drinking by the (small) glass, so delicate and well-rounded they are, taking at least twelve years to mature in the cask – a bit like a whisky, in that respect. The not quite so extravagant versions aged for at least 3 years – like those of La Vecchia Dispensa – are better suited to cooking, but also hold at least some integrity to be paired neat with, say, dark chocolate, or mixed with oil in which to dip bread.
2. Cheese – containing 90% time
Everyone knows a massive part of cheese’s flavour is dependant on how long it’s spent ageing. There’s the rich and nutty Comté from the Jura mountains, at the hands of the Fromagerie du Mount d’Or, which can only achieve its richness of flavour through 24 months of ripening. But flavour can change dramatically short term, too. The Isle of Wight Blue, a blue-veined cheese and World Cheese Award-winner, is matured for up to five weeks. Eat it soon after purchase and its flavour will be soft and light on the palate. Keep then eat closer to its eight week use by date, and you’ll notice it has, rather surreptitiously, cultivated a distinct umami tang.
3. Beef – not so fast food
Ironically, the ultimate fast food – the hamburger – isn’t speedy at all. Not before its brief time in the restaurant, at any rate. While most meat comes from relatively fast-growing cattle, meat from native breeds is slowly getting more attention. These are hardier beasts, more resistant to what the British climate can throw at them. Like Park Farm’s herd – Sussex cattle, who’ve descended from Wealden ox – native breeds take longer to rear to slaughtering age. A couple of years or more, that is, compared to the 16 months cattle destined for supermarket shelves are raised to. This extra time offers them better fat distribution (which you’ve probably heard called ‘marbling’). After slaughter, there’s even more time at play – at least three weeks of dry-ageing, where the meat is hung to allow natural enzymes to break down tough muscle, losing moisture content and upping the concentration of meat in the process. It all amounts to a tenderer beef with better flavour potential, whether you fry it up, or cook it low and slow.
4. Beer – a few ingredients – not including impatience
Big multinational lager brands, the kind that grace most bartops, often look for corners to cut in the brewing process, thus lowering costs and maximising production. Budweiser for instance are, according to their adverts, proud that their beer ‘takes 30 days to brew’. Perhaps they shouldn’t be – if done the right way, brewing a lager should take a couple weeks longer at least.
As with Fourpure’s Pils (pilsner being a kind of lager), a lager takes weeks alone to mature in cold storage after fermentation, allowing the undesirable products of fermentation to drop out, leaving it clean in taste and appearance. But at least Budweiser raised a point – time is hugely important in the brewing process. Compare, for instance, the pint of bitter you’d have down your local – which ferments and is rolled out the brewery in a few days – with wild yeast-fermented beers, like Belgian lambics, which can sit in a barrel for a couple of years before they’ve developed the desired complexities in flavour.