Before Terry, I had an unbreakable rule about cooking with wine vinegar. Prefer lemon. Then a former colleague from the London Independent, a crime correspondent named Terry Kirby, set two tightly sealed jam jars on my desk. One contained a fleshy-looking substance suspended in red liquid. The other contained a fleshy-looking substance in white liquid. "They're mothers," he said.
Vinegar mothers, he meant. Starter cultures to convert wine to vinegar. One of Terry's mothers was for white wine, the other for red. They were French, he said, and 200 years old. That was in 1989. I'm not sure that I ever thanked Terry. I certainly never thanked him properly. Once I had the wit to uncap his mothers, I not only started making wine vinegar from them, the resulting vinegar transformed how I cooked, how I ate and how I thought about food.
Real wine vinegar, I discovered, had unique bite and savor. Vinegar awakened foods, then refreshed them. It gave a dash of brilliance to just about everything it touched. It revealed the charm of the greatest of all French sauces--the vinaigrette. It transformed soups and redefined gravy. It improved cheese, woke up sandwiches, became so basic that it sits out on the counter with salt and pepper. It didn't supplant lemons--you can't make hummus with vinegar--but for so many jobs in the kitchen, vinegar now brings a liveliness, an immediacy and complexity that lemon juice simply lacks. I became so used to its invigorating shot of acid, the vogue for thick, sweet balsamic vinegar never dented my household.
Most recently, I discovered why all those years ago I thought that I preferred lemon. I phoned Ernie Farinias, a winemaker and resident "vinegar-ologist" at UC Davis' viticulture and oenology department. Then I tracked down Sonoma vinegar-maker Karen Fahden. They explained that most industrial wine-vinegar plants are places where rot-gut wine goes to die.
It is a case, it seems, of bad wine in, bad vinegar out. The word vinegar comes from the French vin aigre, for "sour wine." While wine is made in a process called "primary fermentation," in which yeast converts the sugar of grapes into alcohol, vinegar is the result of a secondary fermentation. In this, bacteria called Acetobacter aceti convert the alcohol into acetic acid. The better the wine, the better the vinegar. If you use a good cabernet sauvignon, you'll get a tannic richness and deep fruit flavors. A zinfandel will have a dancing freshness. If the wine has been aged in oak, there will be resinous aromatic notes. If you use barely fermented grapes or bad wine, as much of the vinegar industry does, you'll get something sharp.
Wine, and Time
The upshot is that the best way to ensure a steady supply of good wine vinegar is to make it yourself. All this requires is a vessel of some sort, a dark cupboard and the odd glass of wine left over from good bottles to toss into it.
My own conversion to home vinegar making was not immediate. I tended to finish my bottles of wine. Terry's 200-year-old mothers turned 201, then 202, still in their jars. Eventually, I bought an expensive stoneware crock from a French kitchenware shop on Kings Road. I decanted the red mother into it using a long-handled pair of metal tongs. This impressive new vessel had a lid at the top, where you could empty in the contents of unfinished glasses and bottles of wine. Down near the base of the crock, there was a cork plug fitted with a wooden spigot, where you could draw off finished vinegar.
Once I unbottled Terry's mother, it seemed rude not to give her a little taste of whatever I was drinking. As the vinegar level steadily rose above the spigot, the crock started to leak. I rechecked the instructions and found that I should have soaked the cork stopper in water first, so it could swell and plug the hole. I put the thing in a plate to catch the seepage.
In no time, Terry's mother was swimming in about a gallon of Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone and Barbaresco dregs. The contents smelled less like vinegar than like an uncleared kitchen table the morning after a dinner party. Italian friends, a pair of restaurateurs, asked if Terry's mother had been exposed to metal. I remembered the tongs. I might even, I realized, have given her an inquiring poke.
"Metal kills mothers," said one of the restaurateurs, the one who didn't cook. They had friends who had killed their mother too, she added, but who revived it with expensive wine. I went home and gave Terry's mother an entire bottle of Barolo.