Sweet and sour: Fine vinegars' battle to win fans

Candyfloss being sprayed with vinegar Candy floss sprayed with vinegar is a perfect sweet and sour combination

With premium vinegar an expense many cannot afford, is it worth spending the money on top-notch balsamic, fruit or wine vinegars?

Candy floss... sprayed with vinegar.

Perhaps not a traditional way to use the condiment, nor the first that springs to mind.

But it is just one of the ways that the Amici Acidi, or the "Acid friends" are trying to win over consumers to the intense taste of artisanal vinegar.

The group of Italian vinegar makers have banded together to save traditional vinegar production in Italy.

Tart with heart:

Fillet of venison with wild mushroom sauce

Add balsamic to venison and wild mushrooms

Liven up lamb with raspberry and red wine vinegar

Savour mushrooms with sherry vinegar

Perfect peaks in pistachio meringues

"Today's vinegar has lost a lot of its past charm, especially in the last 50 years, as it is less and less used in the kitchen, and production is largely now in the hands of large companies," says Josko Sirk, Amici Acidi member and owner of Italian vinegar firm Sirk Della Subida.

"My vision is to make vinegar in the most natural way possible. Natural fermentation takes two summers - but the industry does it in 120 minutes."

It is this industrialisation that the smaller artisanal producers are up against. Their lengthy process to create complex flavours is labour and time intensive - meaning an expensive product.

With top range vinegars costing up to £15 or more, compared to £1-3 for lower-grade mass-produced products, they have a tough time trying to win over consumers who are looking to pay less.

And that is if you can find them - with supermarkets mostly selling mass-produced varieties, premium vinegars are hard to source. Cooks need to buy online or from delicatessens.

Italy is the world's largest producer of all types of vinegar - exporting 83m litres of vinegar worth £161m ($258m) in 2009.

Olive oil and balsamic vinegar Factory balsamic "has offended Italian history and cuisine" says Mario Pojer

Vinegar has a 6% share of the UK table sauces and seasonings market, according to market research firm Mintel.

In 2010 vinegar sales in the UK were £42m, but then dropped in 2011 to £41m.

Are boutique premium vinegars special enough to attract buyers in a shrinking market?

"We are working to help people understand, vinegar can and must be a quality product," says Josko.

Tasting session:

Vinegars

Balsamic vinegar: A dark-brown syrupy vinegar, traditionally produced in the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy - protected products carry the Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) label. It's made from reduced grape juice that is aged in wooden casks.

Red wine vinegar: This is a sour liquid comprising a dilute solution of acetic acid. It is obtained by the natural oxidation of red wine.

Rice vinegar: Wine vinegar made from rice used in Chinese and Japanese cookery.

Sherry vinegar: Produced from the "must" (freshly pressed unfermented juice) of the sherry grape

White wine vinegar: A sour liquid comprising a diluted solution of acetic acid. It is obtained by the natural oxidation of white wine.

Taking the time to oxidate the vinegars and age them in wood barrels for years, gives the flavour time to develop and become deep and complex, allowing the vinegar to take centre stage.

However most people in the UK consume industrial vinegar slathered on chips or in ready-made pickles, glazes and dipping sauces.

In fact vinegar is not the preserve of red and white wine, cider, malt, and balsamic varieties.

The Amici Acidi make their vinegars from wine, grapes, fruit such as prunes and raspberries, honey and beer.

One of the Amici Acidi, Andrea Bezzechi, is a renowned producer of traditional balsamic vinegar of Reggio Emilia DOP at his firm Acetaia San Giacomo.

He says the main trend is for sweetness, which can be seen in the flavours of quince, raspberry and even mango vinegars.

But it was orange, lime and lemon vinegar flavours that were judged the most likeable when a range of new fruit vinegars were tested by scientists, a new report in the LWT Food Science and Technology journal found.

Despite this diversity, there is no escaping the world's love affair with balsamic.

Other vinegars do not get much of a look-in in the UK, with 70% buying malt vinegar, and 37% stocking balsamic.

Veal tartare with vinegar Alessandro Gavagna's raw veal came to life with a rosemary vinegar dressing

"For me shifting from traditional balsamic vinegar to artisanal wine vinegar (as for the Amici Acidi) was not a step back. Many people think that Balsamic is more 'noble and luxury', to me good artisanal vinegar is the same," says Andrew Bezzechi.

Mario Pojer also makes vinegar for his family's winemaking firm Pojer and Sandri. He says he is "angry with the world" whenever he tastes industrialised balsamic vinegar.

Acidic and aromatic:

Amici Acidi vinegars
  • Vinegar originates from the old French vin aigre, or "sour wine"
  • It dates back to 5,000 BC and was first used by the Babylonians as a condiment and preserve
  • Romans drank vinegar, and Greeks used it to pickle meat and vegetables
  • Vinegar is a source of vitamin B-1, riboflavin, as well as mineral salts
  • It is made by fermenting natural sugars until they turn to alcohol and then secondly fermenting the alcohol
  • It gets its flavour from the fruit and alcohol it is fermented with as well as the containers it is stored in

"I get balsamic vinegar, not from Modena, but a mixture of sugar and caramel - a mixture that has really offended Italian history and cuisine," he says.

He says the process that traditional producers use sets them apart.

"It's the sublime combination of the sour and the sweet. It's clearly not an everyday vinegar. We used oak barrels for a year and kept in longer (to flavour it)," he explains.

One person who understands this, is Elisa Fabbi. Her family own Acetaia Fabbi, a firm which produces traditional balsamic vinegar in Modena, Italy.

They are part of a consortium of producers allowed to brand a product in their range "DOP", meaning Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin) to say it is a product form a local region of outstanding quality.

"It's one of the last products that still remain in Italy in a traditional and handmade way," Elisa explains.

"Balsamic vinegar is made only with cooked must. The grape juice will be boiled for 16 hours in a steel vat and has to be reduced to 70% and then it becomes cooked must.

"And then cooked must is put in to the wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years and for the first line, a minimum of 25 years."

The barrels, all made of different woods such as juniper, cherry wood, ash, acacia or mulberry also give the vinegar its flavour over the years.

British uses of balsamic vinegar can be limited to salads and olive oil, and in a reduction for meat or strawberries, but Italians use it differently.

"It's good with dried meat, on fried egg, on boiled potatoes, on cheese, on meat, rice - we put everywhere - including salad," says Elisa Fabbi.

Dress it up:

Ma's macadamia salad

Drizzle vinaigrette over Ma's macadamia salad

Try cheesecake with balsamic vinaigrette pears

Munch on mussels in tomato vinaigrette

At the Terra Madre Slow Food festival in Turin, chef Ana Ros from Hisa Franko in Kobarid, western Slovenia and chef Alessandro Gavagna from La Subida in Cormons, Gorizia, Italy prepared two dishes incorporating vinegar.

Alessandro Gavagna created a raw veal stack with tomato, basil and a rosemary vinegar dressing.

But the Amici Acidi also have no shortage of ideas on how to use vinegar. They have even developed a booklet: "100 ways of using vinegar".

But Josko Sirk says they still have an uphill struggle as "none of us can make a living out of the way we make vinegar".

Elisa Fabbi says "people have wrong idea of vinegar taste" when so much that they have tasted has been mass-produced.

"This is not so popular in the world, as it is more expensive," she says, "but people should just try it. It's good," she says.

"In the past we used to choose handmade," says Mario Pojer, "and we can again."

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