Aspall Cyder - Cider and Vinegar

To Drink or Not to Drink? – A Journey in to Shrubs

14th January 2016

Cook And Eat

It’s actually been nearly a decade since I gave up drinking for the first time. My wife Lizzie has always given up; every year, for a month. And she encouraged me to do the same after we first met. Ridiculous; I mean why? What’s the point? I wasn’t an addict – I don’t start drinking at breakfast; well, maybe occasionally on a birthday. I held my ground for a couple of years.

I eventually buckled for two reasons. The first was that I had been asked to chair the National Association of Cider Makers, a role that would have me represent the whole industry in front of Government, including Treasury and of course Health. Alcohol was in the spotlight, potentially about to become the new tobacco; many would say it still is. How could I sit in front of these folk extolling the virtues of the industry in the face of some fierce criticism (think white cider) if I myself could not stop drinking at the drop of a hat?

And then coincidentally, at the same time, Lizzie just stopped drinking for her month. Stopped drinking without asking me to join in – “no thanks, I’ll have tea; I’m not drinking”. A pink ticket of sorts. Well, not exactly... it’s a bugger that reverse psychology.
You see it got me thinking. Could I actually give up, was I being the lady that “doth protest too much”, was I addicted without realising it?

So I stopped. And I discovered 2 things; first, lucky me, I found it very easy. My drinking was / is habitual – even ritualistic, and we all love a good ritual – they define so much of who we are. Second, if you’re not drinking alcohol, there really is very little of interest to drink. It’s like an abstinence apartheid – particularly if you are in the pub or restaurant. Sure, there are some great options in London, but I spend most of my life in Suffolk, and love it as I do, the pace is a little different and the options a great deal more limited.

If you’re not drinking alcohol, there really is very little of interest to drink. 

Nothing for it – determined not to be short changed by my no drinking decision, I took the DIY route. At Aspall, we’ve known for years that adding vinegar to water gives the water a little lift, it's also a well-known health tonic. I almost can’t drink water without it now. Indeed, back in Victorian days fruit vinegars were often added to water with sugar to make a light and refreshing cordial. This was a good place to start.

I scoured the shelves of retailers – delicatessens and supermarkets, for high end fruit concentrates and cordials (no artificial additives please). Armed with an arsenal of our vinegars, various cordials and soda water, I started concocting. Key was to get the balance of flavour – sweetness of fruit balanced by acidity of vinegar, offset by bitterness (stewed tea can be great for this) and good body (a pinch of Himalayan salt often works quite well when needed).

This balance is SO important; if you’re not going to drink alcohol, you want a drink that at least – the getting light headed part aside – behaves like an alcoholic drink. A drink that you sup not glug, a drink that’s not so cloyingly sweet you get a sugar rush headache, a drink that has diuretic tendencies and so doesn’t bloat you.

And then of course there’s the ritual; getting home, assembling the raw materials, measuring, mixing, tasting, and of course drinking. A ritual that distracts you enough to break the habit of opening the fridge and grabbing a bottle of Premier Cru. 

I like not drinking now; but for me, it’s not just about the health benefits but more about the exploration and discovery

My non-alcoholic tendencies have expanded considerably since that first spate of not drinking. It was whilst doing some research in to the historical aspects of drinking vinegars that I first discovered that the word “syrup” is actually derived from Arabic origins. Whilst in America a few years back I had also seen many cocktail bars serving “shrubs”, mainly as part of their alcoholic cocktail menu. Both shrub and syrup are derived from the Arabic “Sharbah” which means "a drink”; so too is the word sherbet. There you go – I always wondered how “having a few sherberts” related to imbibing.

But beyond simple translations, I soon discovered the vinegar and water thing went way back beyond the Victorians. All the way in fact to the Babylonians who added date vinegar to water to make it safe to drink – the principle of which was probably true for the Victorians too.

The Romans were at it as well, mixing vinegar and water to make a beverage called posca; Colonial-era sailors carried shrubs rich with Vitamin C aboard their boats to prevent scurvy. Unsurprisingly, shrubs gained popularity during the Temperance movement, and many 19th and early 20th century housekeeping manuals contain recipes for them.

And so a whole new world opened up. I have started making shrubs not from pre-packed cordials and syrups, but from the raw fruits themselves. And once you start doing this, the portfolio of options really does expand exponentially. You can use pretty much anything to make a shrub – parsnip, rosemary and cracked black pepper anyone? Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

I like not drinking now; but for me, it’s not just about the health benefits but more about the exploration and discovery. Finding out which flavour combinations really work – just how far can you push it on the vegetable side of shrub? Can you really make a soft drink that goes as well with pork as cyder?

Well, that’s going to be a tough one – maybe tougher than Lizzie’s first efforts to get me to take a drycation. But it’s an eye-opening adventure finding out. And after all, isn’t that just the way life is supposed to be?