Friday, August 19, 2011

Alan Coxon and Alegar

One of the big news stories among the bunch of geeks into Medieval European cuisine is the puff piece that's going around online about a new product being launched by "celebrity chef" Alan Coxon.

"This passion is what led him to reinvent a classic and historically valuable recipe from Medieval England, which he has calls the Ale-Gar, putting him in the rare league of chefs who have invented food products of great value. A versatile and uniquely flavoured form of vinegar, to put it very broadly, Ale-Gar can be put to a variety of uses as well-known chefs in many restaurants in the West are attesting to."

Now what makes me cranky about this whole thing isn't that he has "reinvented" a medieval recipe, or even that he's marketing it (and himself) in such a painfully irritating way. No, what bugs me are some of the horribly incorrect and inaccurate things in the article and on Coxon's website.

First, let me make a note about the name of your product: "Ale-Gar". The word alegar is the Middle English term for ale vinegar or malt vinegar. Given that you talk about your product being "infused" with flavors and that it would be a good substitute for balsamic vinegar, you're not making alegar. Instead of giving it such a misleading name, I suggest you change it to something else. "Medieval Themed Vinegar", perhaps. As long as you call it "Ale-Gar", food historians will need to keep reminding the public that "Ale-Gar" isn't alegar.

If a medieval recipe calls for alegar, use this stuff.

"I am proud to be the creator of a historic food range and the globally unique Medieval Old English Ale-Gar – a product that has all but disappeared from our culinary repertoire for over 300 years. After ten years of painstaking research and development, I have managed to bring it back for the world to enjoy."

No, Alan. You are not the creator of a historic food range (whatever that means). You are the creator of a line of products with a historic theme. There's a big difference. Further, malt vinegar has been widely available for the past 300 years, and can easily be found on the shelves of common grocery stores. Any research you've done over the past 10 years had nothing to do with understanding medieval production of alegar. You didn't bring anything back.  You've been doing modern product development, that's all.

"How is Ale-Gar made? Without giving too much away, it is made using a 15th-century Medieval Old English recipe that took me ten years to recreate. The mixture is then placed in acidulation tanks, infused and matured."

I've read the available 15th century recipes for making alegar (one of them is reproduced below). Now maybe you've got access to a source I haven't heard of (possible, but I doubt it), but from what I can tell, the alegar produced back then wasn't that much different from the malt vinegar of today. It didn't take you 10 years to recreate alegar. It took you 10 years to work out something like balsamic vinegar that you thought you could market.

To torne Wyne to Vyneagyr or Ale to Aleger or syder to Aysell. Take a pott and fyll hit Full of wyne Asell or gode Ale And stoppe well the mowth that no thyng cum yn nor owte And do hit in A vessell full of water and set the vessell on the fyre And let the pot of wyne boyle in the same A long while tyll hit be turnyd. [MS Pepys 1047, (England, ca. 1500)]

Oh, and just so you know, the phrase "Medieval Old English" is nonsense. Old English was spoken by the Anglo-Saxons from around 450 to 1066. Middle English was spoken in England from around 1100 to 1500. Pick one. Given that you keep talking about the 15th century, I suggest Middle English.

"In Mediaeval England, wine was limited to Royalty and nobility, ..."

A minor quibble, but this is plain wrong. While it is true that there was less consumption of wine in England by the working class, it wasn't limited to "Royalty and nobility". The growing merchant class imported significant amounts of wine from France, and England had its own (declining) wine-making industry throughout the middle ages.

"For my Ale-Gar, I have used a traditional mediaeval ale recipe, but I have incorporated Chocolate Stout Malt, to tantalise today's more sophisticated and adventurous palate."

So you use a traditional medieval ale recipe, but you add completely non-medieval ingredients to it to make it taste different, which means you don't use a traditional medieval ale recipe. Right. Please also note that any talk about the modern palate being "more sophisticated and adventurous" is complete marketing BS and has no basis in reality.

One last note from the article:
"Of his school life, Alan says he wasn’t a remarkably bright child as he preferred to be engaged in athletics."

It shows.


Jamesburger said...

So, it took him 10 years to do something half-arsed and poorly researched.
I wonder if he worked with the same team that took 12 years to make Duke Nuk'em Forever. LOL

Seriously, though, this is rather infuriating. Perhaps someone should explain to him his folly?

Ketutar said...

Bravo! Well said :-D Thank you :-)

Perhaps they are talking about some odd media-evil dark times of fantasy land called Ye Olde Aengland? You know, with elves and dragons and hobbits and such. And Alangar.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha, thanks, Doc. This was really great, and gave me a good laugh this evening.
It's amazing what kind of stock people put in a famous name, eh?

Anonymous said...

Maybe give the bloke a bit of a break...It's really easy to write a publicly humiliating blog... but I'm a keen and good cook and I have some of his Alegar and it is a wonderful ingredient. The flavour is brilliant.

He's put in a lot of work and is just trying to make a living... I'm sure that your intellectual snobbery makes you feel really strong but there's no need to put people down publicly.

Doc said...

I'm sure it's a fine product, and I have no problem with a chef trying to make some money off his reputation.

My problem is with marketing hype, bogus history, and people who make patently false claims.

Coxon states that he put in "ten years of painstaking research and development".

Either that research didn't actually involve any checking into the definition of the word "alegar" (from the dictionary definition at the top of Google's hit list: "alegar [ˈeɪlɪgə ˈæ-] n - malt vinegar"), or Coxon simply doesn't care if what he tells his customers remotely resembles the truth. Either way does not reflect well upon him.

If honesty and trying to get the facts right is "intellectual snobbery" then that's a badge I will happily wear. Better that label than "willfully ignorant" or "charlatan".

Anonymous said...

A friend and I made the "Ancient Roman" with white wine vinegar, cinnamon, a touch of brown sugar, and a pinch of oregano..and tastes exactly the same..

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I just made a post and a mistake about the recipe; we used red and white wine vinegar, and a bit of rosemary, cinnamon, and brown oregano..
sorry, it's been a long day..
Great blog, keep up the good work!