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At one of the lurid orange tables at Fino Fusco’s Meath Street café, a group of girls eat platefuls of golden chips, fresh from the fryer.
From time to time, they reach for the plastic bottle at the end of the table.
Salt is not as popular as it once was, says Fusco, the wiry grey-haired institution who has run the cafe for more than 30 years. But vinegar is as popular as ever.
Even if the vinegar might not be quite what you think it is.
A Drum of Acid
The debate over what chip shops serve in vinegar bottles has surfaced online, and offline, for some time now.
“In lots of chippers you see bottles of vinegar for sale behind the counter,” said one Boards.ie poster, back in 2007. “Is it bog standard vinegar?”
“As far as I remember,” read another post, “vinegar in chippers isn’t actually vinegar but brewer’s condiment. But then I’m not really sure what the hell brewer’s condiment is!”
There is a difference. “Brewer’s condiment” or “non-brewed condiment” is made by mixing the acid concentrate with water, while vinegar is made by directly fermenting alcohol.
They taste different, says Fusco. Even non-brewed condiments have a range of tastes, because chippers would dilute the acid by different amounts.
It’s easier to make your own vinegar – or vinegar substitute, if you’re a purist – from concentrate, says Fusco, as he butters slices of Brennans bread.
Every few weeks he orders a large plastic drum filled with acetic acid. “I use a drum that high,” he says, raising his hand about four feet in the air. “Whenever I need more I just open the top. I make enough for a month.”
Fusco dilutes the acid concentrate with water, and, around this time of year, one €80 barrel will last around three months.
It adds a bit of work to his day, but buying it in isn’t an option, he says.
“What happens then if you can’t get it?” says Fusco. “There’s no way you could run out at the weekend. Imagine having a chipper with no vinegar? You might as well have a chipper with no chips.”
Sometimes Fusco gets the mixture wrong. He cocks his head upwards, scrunching his features to impersonate a customer overpowered by homemade chipper vinegar.
“It’s okay, though, because after a while it will get lighter,” he says. “When I make it, it could be strong. Three days later I can try it and it’s not. It’s evaporated.”
At Leo Burdock’s on Werburgh Street, Darren Salmon says control over concentrate levels is the reason many chippers opt for the homemade method.
Leo Burdock’s produce their own. One batch is 20 litres, which will last the shop a day, says Salmon. For customers who want to take some home, they sell smaller bottles of it for €2 each.
Burdock’s mixture has a distinct brown hue, but that’s just a dash of colouring, and doesn’t mean it’s malt vinegar.
“Malt [vinegar] is formed in a barrel, and it’s made over a long period of time,” says Salmon. It’s often expensive, so a homemade version also keeps costs down.
Most chippers around Dublin seem to use the clear or “white” vinegar or vinegar substitute, and some opt for a stronger flavour. But there are some exceptions.
The restaurant Catch-22 on South Anne Street offers, according to the bottle, malted barley vinegar with their fish and chips, as does Cervi on Stephen Street.
In Glasnevin, Macari’s chipper makes its own version of vinegar, and that’s what people expect, says manager Marisa Macari.
There’s a distinctive taste to it, she says. “We’d never be able to buy in vinegar because people associate chipper vinegar with the one that’s made in-house.”
“People who buy the vinegar themselves here, a lot of the chippers sell it, they put it on at home,” says Macari. “They still don’t associate the taste as the same [as store-bought].”
Back on Meath Street, Fusco says he’s never used anything but his own vinegar. “No one’s ever asked me for [anything else]. Never ever ever.”
Some customers even come in with their own bottles, asking him to fill them up.
“I don’t charge them, but I’ve more people coming in for the vinegar,” he says. “And they might come back with a lottery ticket or something to give me.”