E150a - Plain caramel (colour) - A natural food colour, ranging in shade from dark-red through to dark-browns and blacks.* Okay, it's not one of the harmful E-numbers, but what's the point? Is it really necessary? Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from nothing but fermented grape must. It gets that lovely caramel colour naturally. Aspall, who make a lovely organic cider vinegar that I have been using for years, recently came out with a balsamic style vinegar made from English apples. I was about to buy it when I noticed it had added caramel colour on the ingredients list along with apple cider. According to their web site, it is "made by blending the finest Cyder Vinegar with the must from reduced Cox Apple Juice." So the added must from the juice is what's giving it the balsamic-style flavour -- why is it then necessary to add colouring?
I wrote to them to ask this (first by email on 11 July to which I received no response, and then by post last week, to which I did receive a response today) and they said, "We add the caramel colour just to make it darker, it does not affect the taste." So why add it then? There's a bit on the web site where they go on about how natural their vinegar is:
Unlike many vinegar producers we neither add preservative nor pasteurise our vinegars. Vinegar is nature’s great preservative so should need no external help in this respect. As for pasteurisation, it only has the effect of destroying many of the nutritional and flavour benefits inherent in vinegar, and so it would seem a crying shame to undo all the hard work of getting this far only to dilute the quality at the finishing post.
So then why add the caramel colour? Also of interest is that it doesn't mention the addition of the colouring anywhere on their web site that I can find. In fact, they imply that nothing else is added to it: "We simply use apples instead of grapes and the result is a match for many a quality balsamic." Why can't we just have honest food?
After a bit of poking I have found a Welsh company, Toloja Orchards, who are only located about 25 miles away from me, who, according to their web site, make an oak matured cider vinegar from their own apples, so the next battle is to find somewhere where I can buy it... Watch this space...
* Stefan Gates, E Numbers: Is your food really going to kill you? The truth about E numbers (London: Cassell Illustrated, 2010), 83.