Friday, 1 January 2010

From the winter edition of 'Beautiful Britain' magazine: Soul Preserves

Imagine reaching for just one bottle on your larder shelf with which you can do all of the following: souse herrings; marinade fish or lamb; de-glaze the roasting pan for a spectacular gravy; mull gently then add to winter stewed fruit; splash over salad or use simply for dipping really good bread into. What is this wonder product? Well, any of the fine fruit vinegars made by the Eastbourne-based company stratta will do the trick, although redcurrant is especially recommended.
Indeed had it not been for the humble redcurrant John and Mary Stratton may never have begun their now thriving two-person enterprise. ‘It is over 20 years ago now that my mother presented me with a glut of redcurrants,’ explains Mary, ‘redcurrant jelly seemed a bit run-of-the-mill and after some research I discovered a recipe for redcurrant vinegar. It was delicious.’ Thus began a culinary journey of discovery that gradually led to the creation of a whole range of vinegars, oils, dressings and preserves all using fruit of the very highest quality.
Friends and family were endlessly appreciative and encouraging of Mary’s produce so, in 2004, she took the plunge and gave up her job as a full-time primary teacher to become a one-woman maker and seller of the very finest preserves. A part of the family kitchen was adapted and dedicated to the ‘production line,’ the family’s estate car was requisitioned for trips to market and John and Mary’s ever-supportive daughters Victoria and Katharine enrolled for bottling, labelling and on going product testing!
Sussex Farmers Markets were, and still are, the main outlet for stratta’s produce and from various villages and towns a devoted customer base grew much more quickly than Mary had ever dared to hope. Such was the success that in the summer of 2005 John resigned from his post at the catering department of the University of Brighton and joined forces with his wife. They make a formidable and inspiring team. Winning Gold Awards at the Great Taste Awards in London several years on the run has been the icing on the cake.
‘After years of working for others we now feel in charge of our own destiny. We love the variety and independence the business gives us,’ says Mary. ‘And the creativity and fun,’ enthuses John. Certainly this pair could never be accused of being anything other than original and creative in what they produce. Developing innovative and subtle combinations of flavours is a constant challenge and one they thoroughly relish. Their weekly attendance at Farmers Markets provides constant interaction with their customers so they can closely monitor reaction to new lines. However, customer involvement does not end just with the tasting. During the summer months a range of exciting, and rather unpredictable, ready-made dressings appear on their stall. So struck was one of their regular customers by the chilli oil and sweet lavender vinegar that she suggested the combination and John coined the name ‘Lavilli,’ which has stuck.
John and Mary impart their culinary expertise and advice freely to customers but they feel it’s very much a two-way process and are constantly learning from those they meet. ‘We love hearing how people use our vinegars and oils and are sometimes quite surprised too,’ laughs John. A popular line is their Pickled Garlic and they were intrigued to find that one regular swears by it, not just for himself but also for his dog, each has a clove each morning. ‘Apparently it keeps the dog healthy; free of fleas and worms!’
Stratta’s products depend upon ingredients that, by their very nature, are only available at certain crucial times of the year. ‘We can only make and sell what we can source,’ says Mary, ‘and I did worry at first when customers arrived at the stall asking for specific items that we simply didn’t have at that particular time. It has been very encouraging that customers quickly accept the idea that we are not a supermarket that can stock all things all year, they willingly adapt and try something new. This is so rewarding.’ Their most popular products are Lavender and Raspberry Vinegar, Lemon Oil, Smoky Moroccan Oil, along with the aforementioned Pickled Garlic and Lavilli. I think this brief list of just some their many products illustrates why they have struck such a chord with the public. Theirs is a successful mix of traditional and innovative ingredients that chime perfectly with the way we cook now and all have a diverse range of uses.
Surely there must be some downsides to this radical change of lifestyle? ‘Well, it is difficult to switch off of course when you work at home and the idea of a holiday becomes increasingly rare,’ admits John. Along with the weekly Farmers Markets throughout the year, during the spring, summer and autumn months there are numerous food fairs and exhibitions to attend. The cookery demonstrations they give at these events are much in demand and their respective former careers in catering and teaching are an obvious advantage here. Summer and autumn are also the peak times for seasonal fruits so there is always making and bottling to do too, ripe fruit waits for no man! As there are only so many hours in the day I suggest they might begin to expand their workforce. ‘No,’ says Mary firmly. ‘we never wanted to create an empire, it is enough that it keeps just the two of us busy.’ ‘With a little help from the girls and their husbands too,’ adds John. A successful small family business indeed.


Discover the full range of stratta products, along with a diary of Farmers Markets, fairs and events, at www.stratta.org or phone 01323 732505.


Some suggestions for using stratta products


Drizzle Raspberry Vinegar onto melon and Parma ham.

Add Sweet Redcurrant Vinegar to Cumberland sauce.

Marinade a joint of lamb in Blackcurrant Vinegar, rosemary and juniper berries.

Splash Sweet Lavender Vinegar onto vanilla ice-cream.

Spiced Pears or Damson Cheese make the perfect accompaniment to any cheese.

Whip Damson Cheese into crème fraiche and serve with shortbread.

Beautiful Britain article with photos in full

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