Edible histories: vinegar

Categories: History of food

From the scourge of ancient winemakers to a highly valued condiment, via alchemists’ experiments and Cleopatra’s bet, Mark Riddaway on the long and complex history of vinegar

When it initially announced its presence to our prehistoric ancestors, vinegar was less a condiment, more a party-crasher—very few people were happy when it appeared, but it showed up nonetheless in their casks, jars and wineskins, sour and unpleasant, ruining the fun for everyone. It was only later, with a little time for sober reflection, that we came to appreciate vinegar for what it can be: a rich, varied source of balance and punch, rather than merely a tragic waste of perfectly good booze.

For vinegar to emerge, two processes need to occur: alcoholic fermentation, then acetic fermentation. Given the right conditions, yeasts feed on sugars and turn them into alcohol—a process embraced by humans since first we discovered the weightless joys of intoxication, deep in our Neolithic past—but if the resulting liquor is left exposed to the air, acetic acid bacteria get to work, triggering a reaction that converts alcohol and oxygen into water and acetic acid: vinegar.

Because vinegar is in essence ruined booze, the forms that developed in different corners of the world marched in lockstep with the alcoholic drinks we consumed. Wherever viticulture took hold, wine vinegar followed. In China, rice wine became the main source of vinegar; Japan and Korea, too. In Persia, according to the Greek historian Xenophon, writing around 370BC, provisions included “wine of palm, and boiled vinegar from the same source”. In the cold north of Europe, it was all mead and beer.

The connection between vinegar and alcohol is captured in the word itself. ‘Vinegar’ derived from the French ‘vinaigre’. ‘Vin’ is a French word that even most Brits, linguistically limited to the ordering of drinks, would recognise; ‘aigre’ means sour. In Latin, the root of French, vinegar was ‘vinum acre’ or ‘vinum acetum’: sour or acidic wine.

Understood and exploited
Analysis of vinegar in the ancient world is rendered knotty by this association with spoiled drink. There is a clear difference between a well-made vinegar used in the kitchen, and a batch of wine that has gone a bit rough through any of the myriad ways that a fermented drink can spoil. But before the processes involved were understood and exploited, the world’s languages often failed to illuminate this distinction. Whether a sophisticated condiment or barely palatable booze consumed by poor people who couldn’t afford better, vinum acetum was vinum acetum.

A piece of inscribed Egyptian pottery found at the workers’ village of Deir el-Medina, close to Luxor, dating from around 1300BC, recorded transactions made in the purchase of, among other things, a door, a mat and the services of a magician, all of which were exchanged for large jars of vinegar—or possibly bad wine. (For some, the difference was marginal: Martial, the Roman poet, used one of his epigrams to mock the standard of Egyptian viticulture, proving that Italian culinary snobbery is nothing new: “Disdain not this amphora of Egyptian vinegar. It was much worse when it was wine.”)

An ancient Greek poet, Alexis, got to the heart of this dichotomy in a suitably acidic verse about the fussiness and idiocy of people: “Sour wine we spit out, but go into ecstasies over a vinegar salad,” he moaned.

Alexis’s salad dressing wasn’t the only culinary application of vinegar that sent the ancients into ecstasies. The poet Archestratus—who lived in Sicily in the 4th century BC—advocated drenching fish in vinegar, a combination of which any chippy-loving Brit would approve. “Whensoe’er Orion is setting in the heavens,” he wrote, “and the mother of the wine-bearing cluster begins to cast away her tresses, then have a baked sarg [sea bream], overspread with cheese, large, hot, and rent with pungent vinegar, for its flesh is by nature tough.” This only worked with tough fish, mind you: “The large she-tunny, whose mother-city is Byzantium”—tuna fish—could, said Archestratus, be dipped in a peppery sauce or eaten plain. “But if you serve it sprinkled with vinegar, it is done for.”

Marinade meats, souse fish, sharpen sauces
The first century cookbook known as De Re Coquinaria provided a vivid insight into rich citizens’ diets at the height of the Roman empire, and vinegar appeared on just about every page. Barely a vegetable was mentioned that wasn’t dressed in vinegar, usually with oil and a touch of honey, and it was thrown around with abandon to marinade meats, souse fish, sharpen sauces, and preserve all and sundry.

In ancient Rome, posca—a drink of diluted vinegar (or maybe poor-quality wine; that problem again)—was consumed by plebeians and soldiers. It was also the last thing drunk by Jesus: one of the few details of the crucifixion story agreed on by all four gospel writers was a Roman soldier giving Jesus vinegar to drink. Glugging down vinegar may sound unpleasant, but its benefits, particularly for an army, were notable; its acidity would have killed some of the bacteria commonly found in water, making upset stomachs less likely.

Ancient medics—and the medieval doctors who followed their lead—waxed lyrical about vinegar. Given its antiseptic qualities, many of their suggestions were sensible—Hippocrates recommended it for treating head injuries and cleaning ulcers—but others were something of a reach. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder listed 28 remedies that utilised vinegar, tackling everything from nausea and leprous sores to sunstroke and millipede bites. Perhaps the most baffling was that “retained in the mouth, it prevents a person from being inconvenienced by the heat of the bath”.

Pliny also recorded a famous story about vinegar. Cleopatra, he wrote, once insisted to Marc Antony—a man increasingly jaded by everyday excess—that she could arrange a blowout of such opulence that a single entertainment would cost 10 million sesterces. The feast appeared at first to be no more lavish than usual—but then the queen pulled out her party trick. “The servants placed before her a single vessel, which was filled with vinegar, a liquid, the sharpness and strength of which is able to dissolve pearls. At this moment she was wearing in her ears those choicest and most rare and unique productions of nature; ... taking one of them from out of her ear, she threw it into the vinegar, and directly it was melted, swallowed it.” The bet was won.

Experimental science
Vinegar played an important role in the cuisine of the Islamic world, where its chemical and medicinal properties were pondered to a significant degree. As early as the 8th century, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, alchemist at the court of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, whose capacity for experimental science vastly outstripped that of any European contemporary, wrote at length about vinegar, and even achieved the isolation of acetic acid through distillation.

The Islamic art of alchemy—the conjuring of gold from base metals—was enthusiastically (and pointlessly) embraced by medieval Europeans, and vinegar was considered an important ingredient. According to Basilius Valentinus—ostensibly a 15th-century German alchemist, but more likely a 16th century writer—“in medicine and alchemy, it is impossible to do anything useful without the help of vinegar”. He quite liked it on his dinner as well: “As a seasoning, too, there is no kind that is more agreeable than vinegar.”

That agreeable seasoning was, by then, being produced on a large scale in Orléans, soon to be the unrivalled home of wine vinegar. Set on the Loire river and within easy reach of Paris, this inland port was a staging post between the wine regions of the south and the palaces of the French capital, making it a natural location for spoiled wine to be repurposed into vinegar.

In 1394, a ‘corporation’ (not unlike an English guild) was established in the city under the snappy name Vinaigriers, Moutardiers, Sauciers, Distillateurs en Eau-de-vie et Esprit-de-vin, Buffetiers. In 1580, the corporation was granted a monopoly, allowing it to grow into a major operation. At its peak in the 18th century, there were around 300 ‘vinaigriers’ making vinegar under its banner.

Mother of vinegar
The method of production that evolved in Orléans became known, imaginatively, as the Orléans process. This involved ‘mother of vinegar’—a thick culture of acetic acid bacteria that floats atop the fermenting vinegar—being continually reutilised, with some of the acidified liquid carefully racked off from the barrel and the same amount of fresh wine funnelled in to continue the fermentation.

The labour-intensive, time-consuming nature of the Orléans process meant that the dominance of the city’s artisan vinaigriers came under threat from the development of more economical production methods. In the 1820s, the invention in Germany of the Schüzenbach system made rapid, high-volume vinegar production a possibility, while the scientific breakthroughs of Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner and Louis Pasteur, who respectively identified the chemical reaction that creates vinegar and the bacteria that drives it, helped to hasten the industrialisation of what had once been an esoteric craft.

The decline of the traditional vinaigriers was slow but terminal. Some of the world’s finest vinegars still utilise the Orléans process, but almost none of them are made in Orléans.

Britain didn’t produce wine. But what we did conjure up in unseemly quantities was beer, so the punch of malt vinegar (also known as ‘alegar’—a clunky compound of ‘ale’ and ‘vinegar’) was our thing. Where there were breweries, there were alegar makers—and nowhere more so than here in Southwark. Since at least 1641, there had been a ‘vinegar yard’ on Castle Street, now Thrale Street. In 1790, this was taken over by the Pott family and expanded into a vast operation—the biggest in England—covering large swathes of Bankside, next to the similarly gargantuan Barclay Perkins Brewery.

Posh flats
Other major manufactures included Beaufoy in Waterloo, and Vickers & Slee on Tower Bridge Road. The old Vickers & Slee factory, by then operating under the Sarson’s brand following a complex sequence of mergers, continued producing vinegar until 1992, making it one of the last of the great Bermondsey food processing factories to be converted into posh flats.

The most famous of all the world’s regional vinegars has bucked the trend by continuing to thrive, recently becoming a world-conquering condiment. Produced in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy via the slow fermentation of boiled grape must, balsamic vinegar evolved from the concentrated must syrups known as defrutum and sapa—staples of the ancient Roman kitchen. At some point, the people of Emilia-Romagna learnt that through very gentle acetification, over many years, a rich, complex vinegar could emerge from this vinous treacle.

The first reference to a highly prized vinegar from Modena—one of sufficient quality to be fed to a Holy Roman Emperor—came in a 12th century poem by Donizo of Canossa, which described how in 1046, this vinegar was given as a gift to Henry III. After 1598, the palace of Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena and Reggio, had its own ‘acetaia’, where a fine vinegar was produced, and it is in the records of the Este family that the oldest description of this vinegar as ‘balsamico’—meaning ‘healing’ or ‘health-giving’—can be found, dating from 1747. More frequent references to balsamic vinegar emerged in the 19th century, when this elixir was sold outside the region for the first time.

In 1819, an inventory of vinegars in the duke’s storerooms divided them into ‘balsamico’, ‘mezzo balsamico’, ‘fino’, and ‘ordinario’, suggesting a hierarchy similar to the one enforced by the rules that now govern balsamic vinegars: ‘traditional’ balsamic vinegar can only be produced from pure grape must and aged for at least 12 years, while other balsamic vinegars add wine vinegar and caramel to the mix.

Microbially-challenged wine
Few things could be further apart than a transcendentally beautiful bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar and a container of badly-stored, microbially-challenged wine. Thanks to centuries of human ingenuity, vinum acetum is no longer always just vinum acetum.