TV chef Alan Coxon tells Richard McComb about his historic culinary quest.
Alan Coxon’s kitchen, in a converted former malt house in rural Worcestershire, looks as if it has jumped from the pages of Country Life. Bathed in light from a feature picture window, there is warm exposed wood, hues of blue, artisically arranged pots and pans and bottles of the purest oils known to Mediterranean virgins.
But it’s all going to go. “It’s looking a bit tatty now,” says Coxon, lightly tanned and wearing scuffed red Crocs. “It’s been here ten years now. Time for a change.”
It won’t surprise you to know that Coxon, a former Michelin-starred chef and mainstain of the telly cooking circuit, has some obsessive personality traits. He is, after all, a chef.
He likes things to be right – just so. Don't cross the Coxon. That disarming smile masks a fiercely ambitious spirit. Hence his plan for world domination with a vinegar made of beer. Balsamic better watch its back – the Brits are coming.
Coxon has been working on his historic food range for the best part of a decade, delving into old books and ancient recipes, mixing food science with archeological investigation.
The first of the new products are his flavour-packed “historic vinaigres” which seek to revive the taste sensations beloved by the ancient Greeks and the Romans – as well as reigniting interest in medieval England’s long-lost contribution to gastronomy, Ale-Gar.
The two wine vinegars and the hop-inspired ale-gar all have varied individual food usages, from marinades and dipping sauces to treacly reductions and dessert drizzling. Coxon is rightly proud of all of them, but there is a special place in his heart, and tastebuds, for Ale-Gar.
The chef believes it is the “biggest contender to balsamic vinegar for 150 years” and he has set his sights suitably high. “I hope to take two per cent of the global balsamic vinegar market,” he says, like a plotting general.
Two per cent must equate to a few quid, I suggest. “It equates to several millions. I would be happy with that,” says Coxon, beaming.
Ale-Gar disappeared off the radar about 300 years ago as wine based vinegars became more affordable and more accessible. It looked like last orders had been called for the once widely used, and made, bottling and preservative aid.
When Coxon re-discovered it, he quickly spotted Ale-Gars potential for a range of culinary applications. Although it doesn’t taste like balsamic – it’s more chocolatey and spicy with notes of cinnamon – it can be used in the same way. “It’s got a naturally beefy flavour,” says Coxon as he leads me on a lipsmacking tasting session.
Ale-Gar makes a great alternative to Worcestershire sauce – “Splash some in a bolognaise sauce as you are browning off the meat. Lovely!” It works as a marinade for meat, as a dipping sauce (for sushi, for example) and gives oysters a new dimension. If you are short of time for lunch, sprinkle a couple of drops on to cheese on toast. Coxon, who is 46, says: “Ale-Gar is the driving force behind everything. It is the daddy. In terms of culinary proudness, I feel like I have given birth – and my God it was painful.”
The Ancient Greek Vinaigre – which I happen to think is the pick of the trio – is the ultimate fat-free salad dressing. Just splash unadorned over leaves, there is so much flavour from the honey and vine fruits that you won’t need anything else.
Coxon says it reduces well and works brilliantly with Asian/Oriental cooking, making a great replacement for rice wine vinegar.
The Roman Vinaigre, made, like the Greek, using South African wine, is infused with some of ancient empire’s favourite herbs and spices, chamomile, peppercorn and a sweetening of honey. It is an alternative to sherry or Champagne vinegar and works well with egg-based sauces such as hollandaise. Centurions loved it so much they used to neck it on marches.
Coxon is critical of the support, or lack of it, that small British food exporters receive from government bodies. However, he has managed to secure distribution for his products in the United States and is hopeful about expansion into the Far East through Japan. “There are 500,000 bottles of vinegar maturing and waiting to be sold,” he says.
Coxon doesn’t believe in hanging about and is already launching the next part of his historic range. He hopes to cash in on the vogue for bottling and preserving with his selection of superlative pickled vegetables and chutneys.
These include golden beetroot, which were consumed by the Romans for medicinal purposes. Coxon is using a heritage seed variety, which he is having grown in Worcestershire and Staffordshire. The golden variety, which when pickled look similar to ginger, taste the same as ruby beetroot but does not have the unwanted side-effect of staining a hearty cheese sandwich – or one’s clothes. During tastings, the golden beetroot proved to be a hit in Japan, not least because of its similarity, when sliced, to the Oriental radish daikon.
All of the products, including a great red cabbage and some crunchy onions (the chef prefers the word “marinated” to pickled) use the same premium vinegars.
It is an ongoing project, exemplified by the rows and rows of jars in the chef’s kitchen.
Oriental Noodle Salad with Ancient Greek Vinaigre Dressing
Use Greek Vinaigre in any recipe where you might choose rice vinegar. Serves 4
6 tbsp Ancient Greek Vinaigre
3 tbsp toasted sesame oil
3 tbsp clear honey
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 x 150g packs ready-to-wok noodles (thin or medium)
150g (6oz) mangetout or sugar snap peas, halved
1 large leek, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
2 heads pak choi, broken into separate leaves
1 bunch spring onions, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, deseeded and thinly sliced
1 red or green chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
Make the dressing by whisking together the Ancient Greek Vinaigre, sesame oil and honey in a large salad bowl. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Put the noodles into a large heatproof bowl and cover them with boiling water. Leave them to soak for 3-4 minutes, rinse with cold water, then drain thoroughly. Add them to the dressing.
Cook the mangetout or sugar snap peas, leek and carrot in lightly salted boiling water for 2-3 minutes, so that they are still crisp and colourful. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain thoroughly. Add to the salad bowl with the pak choi, spring onions, red pepper and chilli, then toss everything together gently until mixed. Serve at once.
Cook’s tip: Marinate 225g (8oz) of large cooked peeled prawns in the dressing for 10 minutes before adding the rest of the ingredients – then toss everything together.