Flavoured wine vinegar has been an important ingredient in French cooking since medieval times when vinegar was essential in order to keep meat edible in warm weather. In the 13th century, street vendors were granted the right to cry their wares in the thoroughfares of Paris. These cries soon became famous, and the vinegar sellers even rolled their casks through the narrow streets crying 'Garlic and mustard vinegars, herb vinegar... ''Vinaigres, bons et biaux.'. They also sold verjus, the sieved juice of unripe grapes which serves to sharpen the flavour of many cooked dishes in the same way that vinegar does. It is still used in some country places and provides a means of using up green grapes unfit for any other purpose. All farm kitchens have an earthenware vinegar barrel. It constitutes another of the many country economies. After the grape harvest, a certain quantity of either red or white wine is reserved and poured into the barrel over a liquid fungus or "mere de vinaigre" which turns it into vinegar. The quantity drawn off each day is replaced by emptying the remains of the wine bottles into the barrel. When herbs are most pungent, just before flowering, they are cut and used to aromatize some of the vinegar drawn off. It is then bottled and used for flavouring. Owning a vinegar barrel is a privilege of which few English kitchens can boast but plain wine vinegar sold in the multiple chemists' shops can be used effectively with home-grown herbs to produce fine vinegar at much less cost than that prepared commercially.
4 or 5 shallots, peeled and slightly crushed, threaded on fine string or
4 clv garlic, peeled and slightly crushed or
2 tablespoons mustard seed or
1 long leafy branch tarragon twice the length of the bottle
1 l plain wine vinegar
Recipe preparation steps
Collect the number of bottles necessary, with sound corks to fit. Wash the bottles in hot soapy water, rinse first in very hot water then in cold, drain, dry and heat in a slow oven. Scald the corks in boiling water.
Pour the vinegar into an enamel-lined or stainless steel pan and over a low temperature bring slowly to blood heat. It should be quite warm to the touch of a knuckle joint, no more.
Add shallots, garlic, mustard seed or tarragon to the warm bottles. (If using tarragon, this should be bent double and pushed down the neck of the bottle). Fill up with warmvinegar, cork down tightly, and place on a sunny window sill to mature for 6 weeks before use.