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Back to basics: vinegar

First We Eat: Vinegar has come a long way from being a staple used to make pickles

Some of my bottles hold self-infused vinegars — my own fruits, berries and herbs stuffed into jars of cider or wine vinegars.

I was thrilled to recently read about Alchemist Vinegar, artisanal vinegars made by Paul Poutanen, owner of Tippa, a distiller in Okotoks, Alberta. I promptly ordered a sampler and am awaiting its arrival. I love vinegar, and six open bottles occupy prime real estate on the butcher block beside my stove. They offer testament to more than a passion for salads and things sour. Acid is one of the cornerstones of the balancing act — seasoning a dish with salt, acid, heat, sweetness, even fat, to bring its flavours into harmony.

Many of my vinegars are Canadian — wine, balsamic and sherry, malt and cider. What they have in common is acetic acid, that nose-tickling, assertively pungent waft of acid that increases in strength when it is heated. Vinegar is made from alcohol, with specific proportions of specific bacteria that need warmth and oxygen to metabolize the alcohol into acetic acid and water. Along the way, the bacteria live on the surface of the liquid, forming a thick, slimy film known as the “mother.”

Some of my bottles hold self-infused vinegars — my own fruits, berries and herbs stuffed into jars of cider or wine vinegars. My favourite infused vinegar is vanilla flavoured: cut open two vanilla pods, scrape out the seeds and add both seeds and pods to a bottle of mild vinegar. Cover and let infuse for at least a month, then use sparingly, for flavour accents as well as acidity.

Malt vinegars, made from cereal grains and sprouted barley, carry distinct flavour overtones of their beer base, such as the malt beer-based vinegars made by Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub in Victoria. Apple cider vinegar, such as made by Okanagan Vinegar Brewery, has an unmistakable apple flavour. Okanagan Vinegar also makes Riesling, six-year-old dark balsamico and iced cider vinegars.

The boutique winemaking Venturi-Schulze family of Cobble Hill, near Victoria, has produced Canada’s first balsamic vinegar since 1970. Just as is in Italy, the grape juice is simmered and reduced, then aged in a series of wooden barrels — acacia, ash, oak, cherry and chestnut — in an aging system similar to that used in sherry making.

Michelle Schulze, step-daughter of patriarch Giordano Venturi and daughter of former microbiologist Marilyn Schulze Venturi, told me years ago that vinegar making requires even better grapes than those used in winemaking because such reduction highlights any weaknesses. The Italians of Modena, the birthplace of balsamic, say that balsamic vinegar is not made for your children, nor for your grandchildren, but for your children’s children’s children. This balsamic is subtly wood scented, darkly sweet, overlaid with mellow acids. Dole it out, drizzle it on ice cream and as a finish for intensely flavoured sauces, pour it into tiny glasses at the conclusion of a meal.

Made in Niagara, Minus 8 is similar to icewine, as it too is made from grapes that are not harvested until the temperature drops to -8 C, and barrel aged in a sherry-making style. This vinegar has a woodsy nose, its sweetness counterweighted by balanced acid.

Soon I’ll have eight more bottles of vinegar on my butcher block. But first we eat, and then we compare notes on your favourites.

Spiced Gastrique

A gastrique is a quick and simple sauce, a reduction, highly flavourful and on the sharp side, that is based on caramelized sugar and vinegar enhanced with optional spices. Drizzle on grilled or roasted fish or meats that are rich and in need of sharp flavours that cut to the bone. Serves 4.

  • 1/4 c. white sugar
  • 1 whole star anise or 1/4 tsp. cracked fennel/anise seed
  • 2/3 c. white wine
  • 2-3 tbsp. good (but not exceptional) vinegar
  • Black pepper and salt to taste

In a shallow sauté pan over high heat, dissolve the sugar in 4 tbsp. water with the star anise or seeds, stirring. Once the water evaporates, caramelize the sugar without stirring, about 3-5 minutes. Slowly add the wine and reduce by half the volume. Add the vinegar and reduce again by one-third. Season to taste. Use hot on grilled or roasted foods.

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