February 2021. My palate tips to sour, as opposed to my husband, who prefers sweet stuff. I am not sure I can draw any conclusions, but it makes for interesting small talk while we drink our morning coffee. So as a certified sourpuss, 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 the vinegars on my caddy 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 booze into acetic acid and water. Along the way, the bacteria live on the surface of the liquid, forming a thick, slimy, yucky film known as the “mother.” (Winemakers and vinegar makers live in an uneasy truce if they are neighbours, and often the vinegary is located far from the winery to minimize the possibility of the mother consorting with the young wine, with predictably sour results.)
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 reminders of their beer base, well exemplified by Spinnaker’s Gastro-pub vinegars. Apple cider vinegar has an unmistakable orchard fruit note, like that made by Okanagan Vinegary Brewery.
Two Canadian wine-based vinegars that I love have achieved cult status, each made in a winemaking region. 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 a solera system similar to that used in sherry-making, with the evaporated portion called “the angels’ share.” Michelle Schulze, step-daughter of patriarch Giordano Venturi and daughter of former micro-biologist Marilyn Schulze Venturi, told me years ago that vinegar-making requires even better grapes than those used in wine-making 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 digestif 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 -8C, and barrel-aged in a solera sherry-making style. This vinegar has a woodsy nose, its sweetness counterweighted by assertively balanced acid. The house website lists several other vinegars: you might want to try IP8, Dehydr8, Veget8 or L8Harvest.
Soon I’ll have a few more bottles of vinegar on the caddy. But first we eat, and then we compare notes on your favourites.
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. Think of it as a digestif, and drizzle on grilled or roasted fish or meats that are rich and in need of sharp flavours that cut to the bone.
¼ cup white sugar
1 whole star anise or ¼ tsp. cracked fennel/anise seed
2/3 cup 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.