Vinegar has a sweet future in foodies' pantries

Future Tense for Mar. 13, 2007

By Steve Welker

My wife and I had a nice supper the other day at Pilot Knob Park, where Tom Gibson’s crew served up barbecue pork and chicken and sides including two kinds of slaw. All four dishes had sweet/sharp vinegar accents.

The way vinegar flows through North Carolina, I’m surprised there’s not a vinaigrette creek or balsamic brook burbling down from the mountains (there are two Vinegar Hills, but they’re both down east, according to my gazetteer). Some recipes for eastern-style sauce begin, “To one gallon of apple cider or white vinegar add....” The other day I counted 31 different vinegars on the shelves at a Mount Airy grocery store, not including several more in the deli section.

The Vinegar Institute says the southeast, northeast and Great Lakes regions have the highest per-capita U.S. consumption of vinegar. I’m from the Great Lakes, I’m learning about the southeast and I spent my childhood summers in the northeast-- at least, in Pennsylvania.

The smell of vinegar still evokes memories of my Grandma Welker’s kitchen some 45 years ago. She kept a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch home, so no company supper was complete without “seven sweets and seven sours.” Sours meant pickled stuff: cucumbers, beets, kraut, eggs, cherries, quince, peppers, onions, slaws and a vegetable mixture called jar-jar. Grandma made them all from scratch, tapping a small (three or four gallons) wood cask of white wine vinegar on the kitchen counter, quart jars of apple cider vinegar in the cupboard and a shelf of homemade flavored vinegars in the cellar. The flavors I remember are raspberry, garlic, catawissa (a kind of onion), horseradish, sage and tarragon.

Today, flavored vinegars are a hot-selling commodity. U.S. vinegar sales grew about 30 percent in 10 years, but half of that growth occurred in the last four. In 2004, manufacturers introduced about 60 flavored-vinegar products; lin 2005, they trundled out more than 100. The industry now seems particularly sweet on prospects for cranberry- and lemon-flavored vinegars. But wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar sales have spurted, too.

Humans have known about and used vinegar for thousands of years. Pardon me if I just quote from the Vinegar Institute site:

“Around 5,000 BC, the Babylonians used it as a preservative and as a condiment, and it was they who began flavoring it with herbs and spices. Roman legionnaires used it as a beverage. Cleopatra demonstrated its solvent property by dissolving precious pearls in it to win a wager that she could consume a fortune in a single meal. Hippocrates extolled its medicinal qualities and, indeed, it was probably one of our earliest remedies. The Greeks also reportedly made pickled vegetables or meats using vinegar. Biblical references show how it was much used for its soothing and healing properties. And when Hannibal, a great general, crossed the Alps with an army riding elephants, it was vinegar that helped pave the way. Obstructive boulders were heated and doused with vinegar, which cracked and crumbled the barriers.... During the American Civil War, vinegar was used to treat scurvy, and as recently as World War I, it was being used to treat wounds.”

Speaking of that last, do you remember the second verse from the nursery rhyme about Jack and Jill? “Up got Jack and home did trot/as fast as he could caper./He went to bed and bound his head/with vinegar and brown paper.”

Some claims about vinegar’s medicinal properties remain controversial, but it’s great for soothing insect bites and rashes. Nutritionists admire its high concentration of Vitamin C and also recommend using vinegar instead of salt to brighten flavors.

The name “vinegar” comes from the old French words for sour wine, but you don’t need wine to make it. Just about anything yeast can fermented to produce ethanol can then be turned into vinegar. And vinegar is easy to produce. A bacteria called acetobacter converts the ethanol alcohol into acetic acid. The bacteria occurs naturally, so you might get away with leaving some un-sulfited wine exposed to air, but it’s easier to start with a cup of unpasteurized vinegar and add wine (or beer). You can also buy the “mother” from food specialty houses. In a few weeks, you can have your own red or white wine vinegar. See the World Wide Web for details.

White wine vinegar is not the same as white distilled vinegar. Manufacturers brew distilled vinegar from straight ethanol in less than 36 hours. Acetobacter can take two weeks or more to produce white wine vinegar, but the result is wonderfully flavorful and it doesn’t have any of the raw quality of distilled vinegar. Aging makes wine vinegar even better. Some balsamics mature for up to 100 years and almost turn into syrup.

I mention all of this because some wineries in other parts of the world have started producing their own wine vinegars and selling them as premium-priced ($5 for 12 ounces) “estate” products. Chardonnays in particular make excellent white wine vinegar and there are a lot of chardonnay grapes being grown in the Yadkin Valley. N.C. Alcohol Beverage Enforcement says it does not have anyone currently licensed to produce wine vinegar in North Carolina, but just as the state once had a thriving viticultural and wine-producing industry, it has had vinegar manufacturers in the past, including a large one in Newton only 65 miles southwest of Mount Airy.

A small number of Napa Valley and East Coast wineries also have started producing something called verjuice or verjus (pronounced vair-zhoo) that I vaguely remember my grandfather making from table grapes he grew in the backyard.

When the green grapes began to show some purplish color, Poppy thinned out the vines. He put the unripened grapes through a cider press and squeezed out a greenish-yellow juice that tasted half-sweet, half-tart. Grandma used it like lemon juice. If he had enough, Poppy let us mix it with soda water for a sparkling drink.

Now I see that Wolffer Estate Vineyards in New York is selling 12-ounce bottles of verjus on the Internet for $5 each. I wonder what our local growers do with the grapes they thin out?

Perhaps North Carolina will have a vinegar and verjus river flowing out of the Yadkin Valley ... in the future.

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