Oil and Vinegar
For what seems like well over a decade, the only vinegar that anyone has been remotely interested in has been balsamic. But, like anything that is over-used - a favourite song, re-runs of Friends - it is only a matter of time before the whole thing seems bland and boring. I recently ate at a restaurant where the manager babbled on and on about his wondrous gravy, only to reveal that it tasted of nothing but balsamic vinegar. Ditto all those fabulous balsamic reductions that were fun and inventive when they started, which are tired and samey now.
The good news is that recently vinegar has started to make a come-back among gourmands who show as much reverence for acetic acid as they do for wine. The upshot is a slowly-growing clique of artisan vinegar makers who take their art extremely seriously, and gradually the same winemakers lauded for their superior wines - Jerez being the most obvious example - are becoming masters of rich, flavourful vinegars. In fact, it is a more dangerous occupation than one might suppose, for the Acetobacter aceti - the bacteria that turns alcohol into acetic acid - is not something you want hanging around your favourite wine barrels. Those who do take the risk, however, are rewarding us with vinegars as surprising and subtle as any vintage.
From the mouth-puckering sharpness of mass-produced vinegars, Spanish artisan vinegars like Spanish wines have matured and blossomed hugely in recent years. Today they are increasingly aromatic with nuances of spice, fruit, herbs and oak, yet only two regions, the Condado de Huleva for its white vinegars and Jerez-Xeres-Sherry, have been officially recognized by the D.O. Evidently any others in the offing - like Catalunya, say, which I´ll get to presently - will have to wait, for the ´vinegar revolution´is something new in Spain´s ample gastronomic armoury.
Recognizing vinegar as a hip, haute ingredient may be new, but the making of it in Spain dates back to Roman times and in all likelihood much further. It is said to be the oldest condiment after salt, and according to The Vinegar Institute, based in Arizona, USA, the use of vinegar as an ingredient dates back at least ten thousand years. Babylonians were making and selling 'gourmet' vinegars flavoured with fruit, honey and malt as long ago as five thousand years, and it has been used throughout time not only as a flavour enhancer - three drops added at the end of an oil and garlic based emulsion for white fish gives the dressing a memorable edge - but as a restorative, to sooth and to heal.
Jerez has been producing vinegar since the 16th century - since the first barrels of wine turned sour on Columbus´ voyages- but it was not until the Nineties that it finally got its own D.O. It is made to the same soltera method applied to sherry, a process by which a base 'mother' vinegar fills at least a quarter of the barrel, all the while being being topped up with newer wines as the vinegar is siphoned off. The 'mother' itself is a stringy, slimy substance made up of yeast cells and various bacteria that forms on the surface of fermenting liquids, turning it into vinegar. It is removed once the process is completed, though it occasionally appears in bought bottles and can be used as a base for making your own vinegar. Simply unocrking a bottle of your favourite wine and leaving it to oxygenate is not true vinegar.
Most reserva vinegars spend an average of five years maturing in wooden barrels, which mellows the acid without diluting the flavour. Mass-produced vinegars, by contrast, are distilled in steel tanks containing alcohol, usually wine, cider or grain alcohol, and the Acetobacter aceti is added on top. The liquid is then heated and air pumped in creating a harsh vinegar, which is best applied in its biblical sense, better for putting on wounds than adding to salad.
With its pedigree, Jerez is widely believed to make the best vinegar in Spain. Specifically Duque de Diano - a 50 year-old reserva sherry vinegar that has been made to the same recipe by the Cala family since 1829. They make just 3,500 individually numbered, one-litre bottles of it a year. The region is also one of the most forward thinking with a growing number of specialist vinegar makers producing siingle grape varieties made from Pedro Ximinez and Moscatel. Both were authorised by the D.O. in 2003. A manzanilla vinegar is in the pipeline, though not yet approved. Less well-known are the gourmet Catalan vinegars - largely because they are so prohibitively difficult to get your hands on.
On one memorable visit, I visited the cava bodegas Augusti Torelló. Torelló are one of Catalunya´s premier cava bodegas, famed for their Kripta cava. What most people don´t know about Torelló is that his cava mata vinegar is one of the best artisan vinegars in the world, sold only to the greatest chefs including the guru of Catalan cuisine Ferran Adria and Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda who came all the way from Australia just to get his hands on some. This is, of course, frustrating for the rest of us. “We just can´t make enough of it,” said Torelló, who tends the vats personally.
From the base cava, this exceptionally refined vinegar is aged for five years in American oak, taking on nuances of coconut and vanilla. It is then aged a further year in French oak giving it a creamy, lingering finish, making it ideal for, of all things, desserts. Cal Blai, a restaurant in the centre of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, is on the lucky recieving end of Augusti Torelló´s magnificent vinegar, and it is well-worth making a lunch-time trip from Barcelona to try some. It features in many of their dishes, including a superb vinegar ice cream, which has a sweet toffee-like edge and a daring bite.
The Cellers Puig i Roca, also in the Penedès, make a more readily available line of vinegars including their superlative Forum Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vinegars for day-to-day use (the bodega is justly famous for its luscious Augustus Chardonnay white), as well as a longer-aged, red-wine vinegar, Flavium. The Priorat is also starting to make slow but sure waves in this direction, most notably the Cellers L'Ëstornell who produce a pretty pink, 100 percent garnatxa vinegar aged for a minimum of 20 years before being bottled in small quantities.
Mix together ¾ cup good quality olive oil with ¼ cup of aged sherry vinegar. Add 1 minced shallot, 1 minced garlic clove and 1 tablespoon of minced basil. Season to taste and store overnight in a refrigerator. It keeps well and the flavour gets better with age. Serve over sliced Montserrat or beef tomatoes layered with mild Spanish onion rings for a refreshing starter, or light lunch served with crusty bread.