Tuesday, 4 December 2007

From the Telegraph Weekend: Sweet-and-sour Stratta dreams

Marianne Kavanagh meets a couple who have turned fruit and vinegar into gold The taste of a home-made sweet fruit vinegar is quite extraordinary. It has a wake-up sharpness, an almost alcoholic kick and then a big burst of ripe fruit in your mouth. You can use it to marinade lamb or revolutionise a vinaigrette: you can even add it to puddings.

In Lancashire, they've been splashing sweet raspberry vinegar onto ice cream cones for years, while on the other side of the Pennines, they sprinkle it on Yorkshire pudding for dessert.

If you ever doubt the wisdom of a career change on the wrong side of 50, talk to Mary and John Stratton.

Both are astonished at the runaway success of their business, Stratta, which sells vinegars, oils, dressings and chutneys made in the kitchen of their house in Eastbourne, East Sussex.

Mary was, until recently, a junior-school teacher. ''It was a huge step outside my comfort zone,'' she says. ''But I'd thought about starting the business for such a long time and I was tired of finding reasons not to.''

The story began 20 years ago. ''It was my mother's fault,'' says Mary.''She had a glut of redcurrants and I went down to the family home in Dorset to pick them.

She suggested I make redcurrant jelly, but I wanted to do something different and found a recipe for redcurrant vinegar.

Friends and family loved it, and we started experimenting with different fruits.''

The Strattons now make 14 sweet vinegars, including cranberry, damson, mulberry, mango and lavender, one of their best sellers.

Encouraged by John and their grown-up daughters, Victoria and Katharine, Mary resigned from her teaching job in 2004 and started selling her produce at food fairs, farmers' markets and specialist delicatessens. Within a year she was so busy that John, who worked in catering, joined her. ''

She said I could be an employee,'' says John, ''until I said I would claim for backdated paternity pay. So she made me a partner instead.''

The Strattons have worked hard. They remember standing at farmers' markets with snow blowing under the canopy, freezing from the bottom up. ''It's exhausting but exhilarating,'' says Mary, ''because you've created something that people enjoy.''

Their reputation is growing and fans include the food writer Sarah Raven, who has included recipes using Stratta products in her new Garden Cookbook, published by Bloomsbury.

It's very much a family affair. Even the distinctive Stratta labels are printed on handmade paper brought over from Bangkok by John's sister, who lives there.

All the ingredients for the fruit vinegars are grown locally. (''Organic if we can," says Sarah, ''but we'd rather use something local than something organic flown halfway round the world.'') Black mulberries come either from the tree in the Strattons' garden or from one belonging to their friend Gillian and redcurrants, blackcurrants and cherries are bought directly from a farm in Ticehurst. The ripe fruit is steeped in white-wine vinegar, filtered, sweetened with cane sugar and then bottled.

"We never leave the business,'' says Mary. ''If we're not bottling, we're doing the labels or sorting out paperwork.'' She and John beam at each other, clearly delighted by the pressure.''

The best thing about all this,'' says John, ''is that Mary had a dream and it worked.''·

See www.stratta.org or call 01323 732505. Sweet vinegars cost about £6 for 250ml. FIVE WAYS TO USE SWEET FRUIT VINEGAR Splash it onto a caramelised onion and goat's cheese tart

Drizzle raspberry vinegar on to melon with Parma hamAdd sweet redcurrant vinegar to Cumberland sauce

Marinade a joint of lamb in blackcurrant vinegar, rosemary and juniper berries

Try steamed sponge pudding with sweet damson vinegar and thick double cream

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