Vinegar is a kitchen essential. That’s no glib statement – it’s true and yet vinegar, I fear, has become a near forgotten ingredient for all too many home cooks. It’s nobody’s fault – it just happens that good everyday vinegar is a scarcity in most food stores.
There’s plenty ‘Balsamic’ style at one end and regular, standard issue vinegars at the other of the price spectrum. It’s the middle that’s gone missing.
Aged Balsamic, with genuine Modenese provenance, is a wonder. Buy the oldest and best you can afford and it’ll be with you a year from now – it must be labelled ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale’ to be real – anything else came from a factory someplace, maybe not even in Italy. Use it like a luxurious scent – in small dabs on special occasions. There is no such thing as cheap Balsamic, so beware. Taste the real thing and you’ll recognise the sweetened, caramelised ersatz from afar. Find out more on www.gustiamo.com – probably America’s smartest and best Italian food purveyors judging by their media plaudits that keep on coming.
Balsamic aside, my mission is get a small range of well made, artisan vinegars back into everyone’s kitchen – sitting alongside the E/V olive oils, sea salt, garlic, shallot, citrus, fresh herbs and spice.
Red and white wine varieties are essential – not just for their differing taste, but for their colour – add the tiniest drizzle of red wine vinegar to a creamy coloured sauce and you immediately have the ignominy of an ugly pinky sauce to pass off on your diners.
‘A l’Ancienne’ – better still ‘d’Orleans’
Orleans, since the Middle Ages, was always the traditional heart of the wine vinegar business – sitting as the city does on the Loire surrounded by vineyards, most with easy access to the river for transport to a central point. Look for bottles labelled Vinaigre de Vin d’Orleans a l’ancienne – this is some guarantee the vinegar will be made in the traditional way using old vinegar – le souche - in oak casks. According to the latest Larousse, Orleans still produces around 50% of all vinegar made in France.
Rheims is also famed, it being the capital of Champagne, so again there was a good and consistent supply of raw material for the artisan vinegar makers. Dijon likewise, where vinegar and mustard making continues, with wine makers to the north and south. Vinegar and mustard making have long been a side-by-side profession – since 1580, in the time of Henri IV when these merchants first became recognised by the State. Sadly some famous names have become swallowed by multi-national titans, but artisan production lives on and is the more prized for just that.
A failed tarragon harvest in Sussex back in the 80s gave me an insight into the vinegar trade. I was invited to travel with the vinegar maker to visit a specialist herb farm near Fontainebleau to buy 20,000 sprigs of fresh tarragon – my role as translator doubled as being restaurant scout.
Each sprig had to be cut to a precise 8″, wrapped in damp newspaper and brought back to the bottling plant within 24 hours. All the paperwork had to be A1 correct so at Dover we went through the red channel, to the complete amazement of the HM Customs, in those days dressed smartly in navy blue, brass buttoned uniforms.
All the usual rigmarole aside, the splendidly bearded and buttoned top man – looking like a stage double for Kenneth Moore in Cruel Sea or some other WW2 hero epic – asked us to open to boot. We explained we were transporting fresh tarragon and needed the paperwork stamped for the authorities. He peered into the deep boot and noticed some bottles, tobacco and cheese – he asked about quantities and where they were purchased, aboard ship or “abroad”. He was onto something because he was on familiar ground. Sad for him and us, the amount fell far short of the quota permitted in those tough times, but the large cardboard box was still centre-stage.
“Tarragon”, he kept saying, as if to summon up a mental picture of what tarragon looked like and what it might be. “Tarragon”, he said again as he rooted through the boot space. We opened the box and let him peer into the damp newspaper rolls. “Ah, tarragon, of course,” he said as if tarragon was a daily newspaper. Enough we thought – we opened a roll, took out some sprigs, suggesting he squeeze some leaves and smell the herb.
Tarragon & Chicken
In less than 10 minutes we were on our way with our paperwork in order – and leaving a Custom’s officer the wiser for having discovered tarragon – we even gave him a few sprigs to take home and suggested its use with chicken, a very popular dish in England at that time.
We have well made wine vinegars and infused variants like tarragon, garlic, herbes de Provence and, more rarely, rose petals and even truffle. Our current favourite is vinaigre de noix - walnut infused vinegar – for dressing salads and occasionally added to a sauce.
Fruit vinegars are best passed over quickly – best said, they were of their time and too much fine calves’ liver has been spoiled for the over-zealous raspberry vinegar de-glazing of the pan.
Sherry vinegars have their place too - again, like Balsamic, they are for sparing use, so the smaller the bottle the better. Look for the best you can afford – PX, old Oloroso and their like are the best – if they carry the name of a sherry house than all the better. Balsamic and Sherry vinegars are expensive if they are good – but remember too, contents count for more than fancy packaging. Don’t be seduced by the pack designers – my best Balsamic ever came in a medicine bottle with a cork stopper from a locked cabinet in Brandoli, Modena’s ‘Premiata Salumeria’ on the via Canalino.
Vinaigre de Cidre
To complete the range, for me, must be Normandy cider vinegar – so central to our kitchen life in Etretat – shallot vinegar to dress freshly shucked oysters, made with cider rather than wine vinegar, makes the meal special – maybe that makes us ‘locavores’ too.
Cider vinegar has magical properties – but only if it’s truly artisan production. These means it will not keep for many weeks once opened, so again opt for smaller bottles where you’re offered choice. Take a teaspoon or two in a glass of hot water first thing and any aches and pains will go in a matter of a week or less. Stop drinking it and they will return. Try this with industrial cider vinegar and nothing happens – worse, it won’t even taste of cider apples.
If I was running the condiments fixture I would have just six vinegars from the list above – and that excludes the two high value Modenese and Jerez varieties.
Their use? A drop or three into sauces, sprinkled over cold roast or boiled meats, eggs, hors d’oeuvres, anti-pasti – re-awaken your taste for vinegar, source the best and have it close to hand in the kitchen as your new best friend at the stove.
A Failsafe, Last Minute Sauce
Ladle some stock into a hot sauce-pan, bring to bubbling – spoon in a Confit, such as Lucullus, to suit your dish (eg Morello Cherry with duck legs, wild Airelles with game) – reduce.Stir in a teaspoon or so of good butter, moving pan back and forth to emulsify. With flourish and pride, add a few drops of wine vinegar – cook on for 2-3 minutes – and serve. This, I promise, is failsafe. You must choose quantities because you know how many you are cooking for.
The best wine and cider vinegars are never expensive. They just take effort to source but I am sure I can bring this about if I can excite some buyers on the cause of Blue Collar Gastronomy.