History of Vinegar

history of vinegar

The history of vinegar is connected with that of wine. Ancient peoples of many cultures and cuisines appreciated vinegar for its preservative qualities and medicinal attributes. According to the food historians, commercial (large-scale) production began in France during the 16th century. Why? Changing tastes prefered this new flavor over traditional salt preservation. The French were quick to recognize and capitalize on the growing demands of this new market. Italians countered with basalmic vinegar. By the 19th century, vinegar was employed for culinary, medicinal, household and personal uses.

How old is vinegar?

"Vinegar has been in use for thousands of years and its origins are untraceable. One of the earliest references is from the 5th century BC, where Hippocrates recommended its medicinal powers. However, then as now, its main use has beeen as a flavoring and preserving agent. There was no need to invent vinegar as it makes itself without difficulties."

Vinegar in the Ancient world

"Vinegar merely as a condiment was not important, but ut was a very necessary part of food preservation; vinegar and hard brine', says Columella, are essential for making preserves'. In addition, it was commonly used as a drink when diluted with water. This diltuion meant that a small abount of vinegar would go much furhter han the same amount of wine, so it proved to be useful and refreshing drink to take on long journeys where baggage had to be kept to a minimum. It is not surprising therefore that it figured among the rations of the Roman soldiers when on the march. Vinegar was usually manufactured from flat wine and various crushed ingredients such as yeast, dried figs, salt and hone added. It could also be made from other fruits such as peaches, and squill vinegar is also mentioned."

"Vinegar, product of a secondary fermentation of wine (or other alcohol). In the ancient Mediterranean vinegar was practically always made from wine, hence the epic epithet oininon oxos winy vinegar' employed by Archestratus. Although by no means as desirable as fine wine, vinegar has important food uses and has been purposefully made ever since ancient times: instructions are given by Columella. Vinegar is most often used as a culinary ingredient and as a preservative. Numerous medicinal uses are listed by ancient physicians. A vinegar and water mixture, known in Greek as oxykraton, was also used medicinally. A very similar mixture, flavoured with herbs, formed a popular cheap drink...Vinegar is Greek oxos, Latin acetum. These terms are often used metaphorically for bad wine' in comic contexts..."

French vinegar

"Vinegar (the French word, vinaigre, literally means sour wine') has been produced and used since the Gallo-Roman era; vinegar diluted with water was a common drink of the Roman legionaires. Orleans, an important centre for wine transport on the Loire, soon became the vinegar capital, and hald the French wine vinegar is still produced there. The vinegar merchants' corporation was created in this city in 1394, and in 1580 Henri IV ordered that the profession of vinegar and mustard merchant should be a recognized occupation in the town and its suburbs', which resulted in the perfection of carefully developed production methods."

"It is believed that the first large-scale production of vinegar occurred in France during the 16th century--for use by the French as well as for export to the British Isles and various European countries. It is further believed that the first major quantities of vinegar were produced in England by processing soured beers and ales. The standard table vinegars used in France today are of grape origin; in the United Kingdom (malt), and in the United States (apples)."
---Foods and Food Production Encyclopedia, Douglas M. Considine and Glenn D. Considine [Van Nostrand Reinhold:New York] 1982 (p. 2064)

Wine vinegar

"Vinegar production must have started in ancient times as the natural result of exposure of wine and beer to the atmosphere when uses for soured wine would naturally have developed. The traditional technique for making vinegar is called the Orleans process and involves only partially filling barrels with wine and leaving it there, under the influence of desirable acetobacter, for several months."
---The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson, Second edition [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 749)

"The best wine vinegar may be made from either white or red wine, the latter having an agreeable mellow taste. Sherry also yields a particularly well-rounded flavour. Wine vinegars of the finest quality are made by a simple and ancient methood known as the Orleans process. Thsi requires the maker not to be in a hurry (the process takes months); to use small barrels (from which the heat engendered by fermentation dissipates quickly); to use wine of good quality; and to provide access to the barrels for air (which will contain acetobacytes, bacteria naturally present in the atmosphere). When the vinegar has developed the required acidity some of it is drawn off and more wine added. This sequence can be repeated for an indefinitely long period."

"At the turn of the century, this city [Orleans, France] was home to more than 200 vinegar producers. Now there is only one, Martin Pouret, a company that refuses to abandon traditional methods. It is run by Jean Francois Martin, who grew up next to the plant in a house built by his great-grandfather Emile Pouret in 1870. It is on the bustling Faubourg Bannier, which once ran through countryside but is now lined with row houses and shops. Mr. Martin's grandmother Jeanne Pouret was the last of the Pourets, who founded the company in 1797. The name became Martin Pouret when she married Robert Martin after World War I. It was the location of Orleans as the Loire River port closest to Paris - it is about 70 miles south-southwest of the capital - that led to its vinegar production in the Middle Ages. The Loire flows from near Lyons in the heart of the country to Brittany on the Atlantic. Goods, especially wine, were shipped on the river from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Loire Valley, then unloaded in Orleans for the trip to Paris. Canals linked the Loire to Burgundy and the Rhone and ultimately to the Mediterranean. Wine that spoiled on the trip was left at Orleans, and instead of discarding it, the Orleanais made it into vinegar. A vinegar merchants' corporation was founded in 1394; production methods had been defined by 1580. An explanation of the process was eventually provided by Louis Pasteur, who discovered that the fermentation of wine into vinegar was caused by a bacterium. ''With the coming of the railroad by the turn of the century the importance of Orleans as a commercial center began to decline,'' Jean Francois Martin said. Silting also interfered with navigation. After World War II, small vinegar companies gradually began closing, forced out of business by makers using high-speed industrial methods. It takes three weeks for wine to develop into vinegar by the traditional Orleans method. It is then aged in oak for six months. The industrial methods used to produce most vinegar can convert 30,000 liters of wine into vinegar in 24 hours. Unlike the industrial method, the Orleans process does not require heating, thus preserving more flavor of the wine. ''We want to capture the quality of the wine,'' Mr. Martin said. ''That's how the vinegar acquires its pedigree.'' In the Martin Pouret plant two dim rooms contain about 3,000 barrels, called vaisseaux, stacked in rows equally divided between red and white wine vinegar. Each barrel is only three-quarters full, because oxygen is needed for the bacteria to act. In a three-week cycle, a third of the vinegar in a barrel is drawn off and an equal amount of new wine is added. As the alcohol in the new wine is converted into acetic acid, the flavor is enhanced by the vinegar that was already in the barrel. ''We do not have to add new bacteria, but we watch carefully and take samples to make sure the fermentation is consistent,'' Mr. Martin said. After three weeks no further beneficial fermentation takes place, he said. ''When people make vinegar at home with what they call a 'mother,' '' Mr. Martin said, ''they do not control the timing of the fermentation. These people are making spoiled wine, not good vinegar.'' After three weeks, vinegar is transferred to oak casks for aging and is filtered after six months. Flavorings are added just before bottling."

"Vinegar, Wine, French Method of Making.

The following is the French method of making vinegar. The wine destined for vinegar is mixed in a large tun with a quantity of wine lees, and the whole being transferred into cloth sacks placed within a large iron-bound vat, the liquid matter is forced through the sacks by superincumbent pressure. What passes through is put into large casks set upright, having a small apurture in their top. In these it is exposed to the heat of the sun in summer, or to that of a stove in winter. Fermentation supervenes in a few days. If the heat should rise too high, it is lowered by cool air and the addition of fresh wine. In the skilfull regulation of the fermentative temperature chiefly consists the art of making good wine vinegar. In summer the process is generally complete in a fortnight, in winter double the time is requisite. The vinegar is then run off into the barrels, which contains several chips of birchwood. In about a fortnight it is found to be clarified, and is then fit for the market. It mus be kept in close casks."

What is balsamic vinegar?

"Balsam...a compound of plant resins mixed with volatile oils, insoluble in water, used in the past for medicinal purposes but also sometimes as a flavouring. These substances were originaly obtained from the Near and Middle East, as balsam of Golead or Mecca, and their use for medicinal purposes in line with the Arabic tradition...Balsamic vinegar which takes its name from balsamic', meaning health giving, is a traditional product of the province of Modena in Italy, produced on an artisanal scale and greatly superior to any balsamic vinegar' which comes from factories. Making the real thing takes a long time"

"Balsamic a loaded name. It implies a precious substance, a spice, an aromatic plant, a perfume, a medicine, a cordial--in other words, an exceptional vinegar with all of those attributes. But it is not a vinegar, and it is not prduced in the same way, even through in the early stages of its manufacture a vinegar mother may or may not be used. The genuine product-- recognized by the precise wording of its name, aceto balsamico tradisionale di Modena, and the characteristic shape of the flask in which it is bottled--is a dense, aromatic condiment. In the past, a superfluity of grapes produced a year's supply of fresh young wine, a plentiful amount of vinegar, and much must to boil down to the thick sweet fruity syrup, sapa, or saba, which was used as a universal sweetneer or filling for tarts. The discover of the complex changes which turn this reduced must into extraordinary conciment remains a mystery, but references in classical literature have been interpreted as evidence that something like it has been known for centuries."

"Balsamic vinegar. A special condiment of Modena and Reggio Emilia made from the boiled-down grape must to one-half its original volume...Some balsamic vinegars are aged a hundred years or longer...The name balsamic refers to the balsamlike aroma of the vinegars made around Modena for a thousand years, and unknown outside that region until recently, and also to its balmlike effect. For centuries, balsamico was used primarily for medicinal purposes and as a sweetener.

It was much prized and very expensive and was given as gifts among families, particularly among the nobility, who believed it could ward off the plague. Mere drops would be used to add flavor to a sauce or to dress fruit. Only in the last decade has balsamico become a popular item in the kitchen--ironically, only after American entrepreneur Chuck Williams brought some from Modena for sale at his Williams-Sonoma kitchen specialty store in San Francisco in 1976; it was offered for sale in the store's national catalog a year later. Interest in the new product among Italian restauranteurs in the United States sparked an interest among cooks in Italy; balsamic vinegar has become as much a staple of American kitchens and restaurants as it is of those in Italy, France, Great Britain and other countries. Balsamico is now used liberally in salads, on grilled meats and fish, and in ways wine vinegar might be. It is added in droplets to orange slices and strawberries."

Vinegar in 19th century USA

Period cookbooks confirm vinegar was a popular household substance serving many purposes: culinary, medicinal, household and personal. Recipes for vinegar suggest this product was sometimes made at home. Inexpensive commercial vinegars, of various composition, were also available.

Commercial vinegar

"Vinegar.--One of the most useful and frequently needed articles in the long catalogue of domestic wants, and yet but seldom to be obtained--the ordinary article sold being a diluted and impure solution of acetic acid. Acetic acid is the most common of the vegetable acids, occurring in the juices of a large number of plants. Vinegar in the United States is made chiefly from cider, although whiskey and other alcoholic liquors are brought into service; and even the refuse maple-sap, too poor for sugar, is boiled down, diluted and made into vinegar. The flavor and quality of the vinegar depends entirely upon the material of which it is made, and the quality and condition of that material--thus wine vinegar is the color of the wine producing it. Of all the sources for the production of vinegar, cider made from sound, ripe, sweet apples by a good process, and without adulterations, is undoubtedly the most the most agreeable and serviceable description in use. From the high price of acetic acid, vinegar is frequently adulterated with sulphuric, muriatic or nitric acids, and, in some cases, there is not a trace of acetic acid to be found, the flavor being given by the addition of ether, alum, red pepper, mustard, etc., these adulterations being exceedingly injurious to the delicate organism of the stomach." 

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