Vinegar often gets a bad rep. In fact, it’s safe to say that vinegar is the Rodney Dangerfield of the food world. The lack of respect given to vinegar by most consumers is, no doubt, due to the bottle of white distilled vinegar, that many of us grew up with, one that was taken out once a year, and used to wash the windows. One sip from these notorious bottles, usually done on a dare, would be enough to send one into a paroxysm of fits and perpetuate the idea, that vinegar was an abhorrent thing to be avoided at all costs.
Fortunately, those in the know have awakened to the sublime effects good vinegar can have on food, as well as to the huge variety, that is now available in specialty shops, and increasingly in supermarkets across the Untied States. Still, it seems consumers just don’t know what to do with the stuff. With a few exceptions, even most books that have been written about vinegar, seem to concentrate more on its myriad household uses – from treating sunburn to keeping fleas at bay for Fido – than on its culinary role. Even if it is only used to dress a salad, there are enough types of vinegar to provide a panoply of flavors for even the most demanding gourmet. Here, then, is a look at the heretofore best-kept secret in the kitchen, a powerhouse of flavor and variety, and perhaps the best friend our Napoleon olive oil ever had.
“A Very Homely Household Savor”
Thus wrote the great sensualist poet Lord Byron, who also called vinegar a “sad, sour, sober beverage.” It is unlikely that Byron spent much time in the kitchen, or he may have discovered what his cooks probably knew – that vinegar can enliven the dullest sauce, make vinaigrettes sing, and generally lend spark to a broad range of dishes. Vinegar can perk up soups and sauces, and be used instead of wine to deglaze a pan, and can add flavor to steamed vegetables, or other mild-flavored foods. Additionally, vinegar can help make rice fluffier, eliminate cabbage odor, and freshen up slightly-wilted vegetables by soaking them briefly in cold water and vinegar. And, of course, if there was no vinegar, there would be no pickles, a sad thought indeed.
According to Progressive Grocer Magazine, supermarket sales of vinegar now reach more than $200 million annually, a rising figure that many credit to the increasing demand for high-end, premium vinegars, especially those that are aged for extended periods of time, such as traditional balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegars, and the new wave of varietals from both Europe and America. Certainly, it helps that cookbooks are talking about vinegars more than ever, aided by the unprecedented availability of such a wide range of flavors, prices, and styles. All in all, however, except for the most precious aceto balsamico (which is not actually made from wine, but from cooked grape must), vinegar reminds one of the most affordable of specialty foods, particularly when you compare it to extra-virgin olive oil, or wine.
Balsamic / Sherry Wine Vinegars
If Aesop had written a fable about sweet vinegars, Spanish vinagre de Jerez would have played the tortoise and Italy’s aceto balsamico di Modena the hare. The average American diner had never heard of either product in the early 1970s, when an article by New York Times food writer, Craig Claiborne, introduced readers to the joys of balsamic vinegar, setting off a stampede that has yet to abate.
Fueled by the popularity of Italian restaurants, Italy’s efficient promotion of food exports and our national sweet tooth, the dark and syrupy vinegar from Modena quickly evolved from a fad to a trend to a staple of the U.S. diet. Sherry vinegar, in contrast, was virtually invisible in the United States until the mid-1990s, and is still an infrequent guest on the supermarket shelf. There are several reasons for this. Spain banned food exports for decades in response to the famines that accompanied its Civil War. When the government finally created an aggressive export policy, it concentrated on its most abundant products such as citrus fruits, olives, olive oil and wine.
Spanish producers, without the need for haste, were able to experiment with different blends and methods to produce a wider variety of top quality Sherry vinegars, and at their insistence, in March 2000, the regional body governing Sherry denominations began regulating Sherry vinegars as well.
The result is a versatile product line of guaranteed purity, entering a market already trained to appreciate sweet vinegars, that is increasingly familiar with Spanish wines and ready to try something new after years of tasting balsamic vinegars. When we first imported Sherry wine vinegar from Spain, only Spanish customers bought Sherry vinegar. Now we’d say it’s 50-50, the increase has been steady, and all signs point to it, continuing.
Just as authentic balsamic is native to Modena, Italy, true Sherry vinegar comes from a single town: Sanlucar de Barrameda in Andalucia, on the southern Atlantic coast of Spain, and like its Italian counterpart, “vinegre de Jerez” is the end result of a unique aging process that produces a flavor like no other.
Organic Red / White Wine Vinegars
Arguably, those vinegars made from wine are the greatest of all. In fact, our word vinegar comes from the French vinaigre (literally “sour wine”) derived from the Latin vinum acer, which means the same thing. Like the wines they are made from, wine vinegars offer enormous range and versatility. Vinegar is the necessary, and quite natural, outcome of the life of grape juice (or any other fermentable liquid for that matter). Left to its own devices – and plenty of fresh air, grape or other fruit juice will naturally ferment. In other words, naturally occurring microflora and yeasts will begin to devour the sugars in the liquid, and convert them into alcohol. If further left alone, acetic bacteria will invade and consume the alcohol, and in turn, change the alcohol into acid, or vinegar. Although, the whole process will happen naturally, whether one intends for it to happen or not, today the mechanics of making commercial vinegar are highly controlled, or as controlled as one can be over Mother Nature.
The method by which virtually all fine wine-based vinegar is made, is called the Orleans process, named for the French city on the banks of the Loire River, where the method was developed. Essentially, the process involves using relatively small barrels in which the vinegar develops, and unlike wine, leaving the barrel partially unfilled to allow for the circulation of air and wild yeasts. A layer of gelatinous-looking material like a sleeping jellyfish, will inevitably form on the surface. Called the “mother”, it is really just a conglomeration of the used-up Acetobacters and yeasts, a mass that will sometimes settle on the bottom and sometimes float on the surface. Mother will often develop in bottles of vinegars as well, especially those that have not been pasteurized, usually causing customers to think their vinegar has gone bad. In effect, the vinegar has already gone bad by virtue of becoming vinegar and nothing more can happen to it. The mother can take over if left alone, however, and it’s best to remove and discard it, or save it to start your own batch of vinegar.
Most of the vinegar produced in Europe derives from wine, and it may be fermented from either red or white wine, sherry, or Champagne. Like wine, these vinegars are often aged in wooden casks. They are the most versatile of vinegars, and mild. Wine vinegars may be used in salad dressings, such as vinaigrette, marinades, and sauces. Wine vinegar has an acetic acid content of 5% to 6%.
Red wine vinegar is made from red wine, can offer a rich depth of flavor; excellent for meat marinades, and sauces, and in vinaigrette for robust salads.
White wine vinegar is made from white wine, this vinegar can be sharp or mellow, depending on the original substrate. It is essential for certain light vinaigrettes, beurre blanc, and marinades for light meats and seafood.
Napoleon has extended our line to include Certified Organic Vinegars that are reserved, but not limited to the environmentally sensitive consumer. With today’s consumer becoming more focused on a natural life style, and healthy eating, our Vinegars provide high quality without the use of fertilizers and chemical pesticides.
Our Napoleon Organic Vinegars are produced only with first quality grapes, that have been cultivated under the guidelines of organic agricultural methods. These methods protect the environment by reducing the use of fertilizers, and totally avoiding pesticides and synthetic herbicides. The entire production is processed in accordance with the International Standards set forth by the renowned certifier, ECOCERT Italy. ECOCERT Italy assists the producer in every phase of production, from selecting and processing the raw material, to control of organic documentation, product labeling, packaging, and storage.
Our Napoleon has combined the Mediterranean traditions with the organic agricultural methods, to provide a complete line of totally organic vinegars, that include red and white wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar of Modena. All of these vinegars are extraordinary in flavor, taste and aroma, primarily due to the careful selection of organically grown grapes and musts. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is further enhanced through the aging process in ancient barrels made from “Slavonia Oak”.
The key to successfully merchandising your vinegar selection, especially if it is an extensive one, is twofold: Information and tasting. As to the first, you can’t give too much information about vinegar. Consider hanging a sign next to your vinegar display, that details the vinegar-making process with pictures or diagrams, descriptions of the various types of vinegar (i.e. balsamic, organic, red and white wine, and sherry wine), suggestions for uses, and recipes. In terms of recipes, practice what you preach and feature vinegar-based dishes in your prepared foods selecton, displaying the particular vinegar used nearby.
Offering comparative tasting is very important to illustrate how different vinegars can be. For most people, the knowledge that you actually can taste vinegar is as much a revelation as the discovery of so many styles. In any case, tasting is an excellent place to start, if you are introducing new vinegars to your clientele. Live up several each day as you would with our Napoleon olive oil, and be sure to accompany each one with proper signage. Pour the vinegars into small white bowls to show off their colors, and have plain white bread cubes to dip in the vinegars. Just as the ancient Romans offered bowls of vinegar at their tables for dipping, you should offer your own acetabulum to increase sales. Above all, taste as many vinegars as possible. The more knowledgeable you are yourself, the better you can pass on the enthusiasm for one of nature’s most delicious, versatile, and perfect foods.