Adding flavour with vinegar
On a marble slab next to my stove I have a crowd of condiments and cooking ingredients; different olive oils, a jar of Gozo sea salt, pomegranate molasses, palm sugar syrup, pumpkin seed oil from Austria, argan oil from Morocco and more bottles of vinegar than surely anyone could possibly need. It is one of my favourite ingredients, and one which I use often, especially for its refreshing quality when combined with summer food.
The Aceto balsamico traditionale di Modena in its small, squat bottle is the perfect ingredient for dropping on a piece of sautéed calves’ liver or breaded veal escalope, or, as they do in Modena, for ‘baptising’ the Parmesan served for dessert.
The consortium in Modena which regularises the production of authentic balsamic vinegar certifies those bottles with a seal and label. The 100 ml bottle resembles a small glass barrel, and the price is now in the region of €90.
There are some exquisite vinegars of well over a 100 years old still in the possession of the families who originally produced them.
The vinegar is made from the juice of the trebbiano grape concentrated over a low flame and fermented slowly in a series of wooden barrels, beginning with large chestnut or oak barrels.
Each year, the vinegar is moved into progressively smaller barrels in a variety of different woods. Commercial balsamic vinegar may have some traditionally made balsamic vinegar in it, or it may be a white wine vinegar coloured with caramel. It is my last bottle of the real thing, so used with extreme care, not to say parsimony.
Traditional French honey vinegar made by a bee-keeper in Touraine is one of my more unusual vinegars, delicate in flavour and perfect with a herb and lettuce salad scattered with a few crushed walnuts and some walnut oil.
Rice vinegar and coconut vinegar are also useful when cooking oriental dishes, and, indeed, quite indispensable when making sushi, for which Japanese rice vinegar is de rigueur.
Like other vinegars, rice vinegars are sometimes made into flavoured vinegars: with soy sauce, dashi (Japanese soup-stock), or mirin (a sweet rice wine for cooking) as the base, and then additions of grated ginger for shogazu vinegar, bonito flakes for togazu vinegar, toasted sesame seeds for gomazu vinegar and chillis and onions for nanbanzu. Horse-radish, mustard, citron and white radish, or daikon, are also used as flavourings for rice vinegar.
I have several bottles of sherry vinegar, some distinguished by the type of sherry from which it is made, such as amontillado and, one of the best, the sweetly grapy Pedro Ximenez, and some distinguished by age. In fact, sherry vinegar deserves an article of its own, so watch this space.
I have some rare bottles of Valdespino sherry vinegar, from the family’s own barrel, which was entered in the World’s Fair of 1904 as an old vinegar. The acidity is in the region of 17 degrees, compared to the more usual six degrees, so it, too, is used sparingly, a drop in a classic gazpacho, for example.
The PX vinegar is perfect on a strawberry and cucumber salad or to deglaze the pan after cooking chicken livers or lamb’s kidneys.
Distilled vinegar is usually kept in the cleaning cupboard for descaling the kettle and cleaning lime scale from wine glasses, but I use it for making chutneys and pickles, often in combination with sherry vinegar for added flavour.
One bottle of vinegar contains chillies sent to me years ago from a reader in Ascension Island; the chillies have given up their heat, but a drop of the vinegar is enough to enliven a whole bowl of bean dip.
With wine vinegar, usually white, I make my own fruit, herb and flower vinegars, and am especially fond of elderflower vinegar and lavender vinegar.
And on that subject, have you sampled the Ta’ Frenċ lavender vinegar? Always at the cutting edge, they have harvested this year’s lavender and turned it into the most fragrant, delicately-hued condiment. I use lavender vinegar with finely chopped shallots to serve with oysters, and it is excellent with raw fish preparations such as tartare or sashimi, or with cooked seafood.
At this time of year, I also make soft fruit vinegars, of which raspberry is the best. Although much in vogue in the 1980s, fruit vinegars are not new. Look through any Victorian or even much earlier cookery book and you will find a recipe for raspberry vinegar.
Then it was used, more often than not, as the basis for a refreshing drink. Now it is used in salad dressings and particularly in sauces made from pan juices, for example, when you are frying liver or duck breasts. It tastes very good, too, used as part of a basting mixture when roasting ham, duck or other fatty or rich meats.
It is easy to make fruit vinegar by crushing the fruit into a bowl and pouring on enough wine vinegar to cover. I use about 250g raspberries for a 500 ml bottle of vinegar. Leave to stand for four days; stir occasionally. Stretch muslin loosely over a saucepan. Secure with string and strain the mixture into pan. Boil for 10 minutes. Pour the vinegar through a funnel, into hot, sterilised bottles and seal tightly.
Recipes that need vinegar include gazpacho, bortscht, chutney, rollmops, escabeche, sardines ‘in saor’ and one of my favourites, chicken Charles Barrier in which the chicken pieces are deglazed with raspberry vinegar.
Perhaps the most unusual recipes are those using vinegar in place of eggs in sponge cake recipes; sometimes the butter is replaced with vegetable or olive oil. They work because the vinegar reacts with another ingredient, bicarbonate of soda to provide the raising action required to produce a light and airy texture.