Helen Peacocke speaks to the boss of prize-winning Chippy company Womersley

Vinegar has remained an essential ingredient for centuries. Indeed the Babylonians were making wines and vinegars from fruit way back in 5000BC and Chinese texts record its use in 1200BC. Whilst vinegar was used as a food then, it was also used as a medicine. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, prescribed it mixed with honey for coughs and colds — a mix that’s still recommended today.

Perhaps the most popular vinegar story rests with Cleopatra who is said to have dissolved a priceless pearl in vinegar in her quest to impress Mark Antony by staging a banquet which would prove far more costly than anything he could offer. The story, written by Pliny the Elder, suggests that the pearl dissolved almost immediately it was dropped into the vinegar. Today’s scientists claim that even if she had used the strongest and roughest of vinegars the pearl would not have dissolved right away. Even if the vinegar had been boiled or the pearl crushed it would have taken at least 24 to 36 hours to dissolve.

Vinegar is certainly a fascinating ingredient. Womersley, one of the country’s leading brands of fruit vinegars, which began life in Yorkshire, is now based in Chipping Norton, where Rupert, son of Martin and Aline Parsons now lives. It was Martin’s instinctive ability to blend specialist home-grown herbs and fruits with vinegar and sugar to produce an award-winning liquid favoured by foodies and chefs throughout the country that established its popularity.

When Rupert took over the running of Womersley in 2009, he moved it to a bespoke new premises near his home in Chipping Norton and rebranded the image, using an appealing new label and art work that would promote the brand to a modern audience. He also attends local food festivals to introduce it to new clients. Visitors to the Thame Food Festival last week would certainly have noticed his stall and the attractive bottles of coloured vinegars on display.

Since taking over Womersley he has also sought advice on the flavours of his products, pruning down the list available and adding a touch more acidity to others. Reducing the sweetness has certainly turned a popular product into a very popular product that won the Nigel Barden Heritage Award at the Great Taste Awards, in which one of the judges described it as “drop dead gorgeous”!

The award was presented to Rupert in front of more than 300 guests from the world of fine food at the Great Taste Golden Forks Dinner in London last month, by broadcaster Nigel Barden. The award went to the Womersley Golden Raspberry & Apache Chilli vinegar which was admired for its rich luxurious finish. The small Apache chilli used for this product is British-grown and gives the vinegar a controlled, fiery kick while still allowing the sweet golden raspberries to sing out.

To win a three-star Great Taste award is comparable to a chef winning a Michelin star.

The Nigel Barden Heritage Award is presented to a producer who uses rare breeds or heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables. It was created to encourage and reward food producers such as Rupert whose products celebrate and uphold traditional flavours and characteristics. Since taking over the business Rupert has won several awards, but he is particularly proud to have gained this one.

Rupert says that he used the Great Taste Awards this year to gauge whether the alteration he made to the sugar level of the vinegars was a likely to be seen as a positive move.

“Given the results, it seems we are going in the right direction. As a result, we will be going into full production of the whole range and will be selling the vinegars only in the reduced sugar format from now on,” he added.

Apart from enhancing a salad dressing the Golden Raspberry & Apache Chilli vinegar is perfect if you add it to a grilled or poached fish dish (see recipe opposite) and the strawberry and mint makes for a superb marinade for strawberries. To lift the taste of a stir-fry, Rupert suggests a liberal splash of his Lime, Black Pepper & Lavender, though he admits it also tastes wonderful if warmed and poured over pancakes and ice cream. For Italian dishes such as Parma ham, he advises a sauce created from the classic cherry vinegar, which goes particularly well with chocolate too.

And if you would like to raise a glass and toast Rupert’s great achievement, try adding a dash of a Womersley vinegar to your favourite cocktail — you will love the kick it provides.

For more information, visit www.womersleyfoods.co.uk