First there was wine, beloved by the ancients. Then there was wine gone bad – a mishap of leaky casks or stashes gone past their prime that mutated into one of the most versatile products in the world. “Vin aigre” (which roughly translates to “sour wine”) is a combination of acetic acid (aka ethanoic acid) — an organic compound which is the result of the miracle of fermentation — chemical reactions activated by the slow decay of everything from grapes to beets, malts to grains.
Apples, rice, and honey all produce distinctive vinegars. Used as a condiment and cooking liquid — vinegar is the base for multiple marinades, vinaigrettes and pickling.
Kimchi, Sauerkraut and Kosher dill pickles are only a few of the tasty vinegar-preserved treats developed all around the globe. Apple cider vinegar is used in natural healing, its ability to break down fats, mucous and phlegm makes it particular suited to detoxifying. Those same acidic properties make vinegar efficient for household cleaning as well, dissolving soap scum and stains and combined with baking soda — makes a powerful unclogging agent.
Some of the most popular types of vinegar are white wine, rice, malt and Balsamic vinegar. True balsamics are produced only in Modena Italy, where a particular grape, the Trebbiano, has been harvested for generations to create this distinct and very rare vinegar. Look for the real deal “Modena Balsamic” in specialty shops – as most supermarket labels reading “balsamic” are merely less-nuanced reproductions.
Modern distilleries produce vinegar through both a slow or fast fermentation — the longer “slow” process allows for a non-toxic ‘mother’ to form, a sort of slimy residue comprised of acetic acid bacteria and cellulose. That ‘mother’ is also used as a kind of ‘kick start’ in the formation of ‘fast’ process vinegar, as well as for kombucha — which uses yeast and bacteria to produce a drinking vinegar rich in nutrients.
Vinegar, with all its many uses, has a long and fascinating history. During the Black Plague thieves used vinegar to protect them from germs as they stole from the dead. During the Civil War, vinegar — a natural antibiotic, was used to heal wounds. Roman Legionaries drank it before going into battle. It was used by sailors to preserve foods for long voyages and also for swabbing the decks.
Cleopatra — after making a bet that she could “consume a fortune in a single meal” — dissolved a pearl in a glass of vinegar and drank it. Clever girl!