The Fresh Press
By Nancy Loseke
Filed: February 26, 2008
A distinctive tang in the morning air confirmed we had found the correct address. Our noses picked up the sassy, winey scent of vinegar as soon as we parked and exited the car, deftly separating the smell from the strata of auto and bus exhaust and other “borne-on-the-wind” things that blanket Santiago, Chile on a still day.
We had arrived at the headquarters of Mission Chile SA, producers of Origen Premium Vinegars, for a tasting.
Now, you know I love olive oil. I love vinegar, too, and greatly respect the enduring union the two have enjoyed for centuries.
However, having sampled more than 50 Chilean olive oils the previous afternoon, knowing by heart Chile’s official but slightly unsettling tourism motto—“All ways (sic) a surprise”—and with the fading flavors of a hotel breakfast and strong coffee still in my mouth, I wasn’t sure I was up to a vinegar eye-opener.
But my colleague, TJ Robinson, had set up the 10:30 am appointment days before; there would be no other opportunity for us on this trip to visit this unique vinegar plant before we returned to the US. Besides, our friends Victor Szecowka and Jose Miguel Montes, young olive oil and wine exporters for Millaman/TerraMater, had graciously offered to drive us there. How could we refuse?
Vinegar, from the French vin aigre (“sour wine”), is basically alcohol that has undergone a personality change after befriending natural, airborne bacteria called acetobacters. The bacteria turn the alcohol into acetic acid, a sour thing. (Personally, I think pediatricians better get off the golf course right now and determine if these loose and unsupervised acetobacters affect teenagers. It could explain a lot.)
The conversion of alcohol to vinegar seems, to the uninitiated, like a fairly simple process. But much can go wrong.
If you were sentient in the 1970s, you may remember being advised by cooking magazines of the day to combine the dregs of unfinished bottles of wine and wait for the magic to happen—the formation of a floating and slimy but benevolent bacterial “mother”, and ultimately, “gourmet” vinegar.
Did that work for you? It certainly didn’t work for me.
I really did try, combining a couple of undistinguished bottles of wine from the State Store in a stoneware crock covered with cheesecloth. This pathetic, burgundy-colored brew languished on my kitchen counter for weeks. I nervously checked on it from time to time—after all, I already had a failed sourdough starter experiment on my rap sheet—and eventually succeeded in cultivating a malevolent-looking slick of blooming, bluish mold; definitely not a good “mother”.
Anyone could see that. I dumped the scum, scrubbed out the crock, and went back to buying mostly supermarket vinegar, an M.O. I only abandoned after my Chilean epiphany.
Where my vinegar experiment failed, the one undertaken by the co-founders of Origen Premium Vinegars, Verónica Larrain and María Inés Irarrázaval, succeeded spectacularly. They had an edge going in: Both are agricultural engineers specializing in enology and fruiticulture.
They’ve since been joined by longtime friend Caroilna Grez, also an agricultural engineer and a trained sommelier. All these young women are sharp, attractive and passionate about what they do.
“Even in college, we wondered why Chile, with its award-winning wines, wasn’t in the vinegar market,” said Verónica. “It seemed like a natural thing to do.”
Verónica and María Inés spent more than two years studying vinegar and developing a business plan. Significantly, they created from scratch a bacterial matriarch capable of nurturing generations of balanced and flavorful acetic offspring.
Eschewing modern production techniques and soulless, stainless steel tanks,
In the Middle Ages, the Loire Valley river town of Orleans was awash in spoiled wine that merchants deemed unworthy of shipment to the Parisian market some 70 miles away. Rather than wasting it, enterprising Orleanais turned the wine into vinegar. They stored the casks on their sides, drilled additional bungholes, and introduced healthy, lively “mothers” to the orphaned plonk.
This is essentially what Verónica, María Inés, and Caroilna do with one notable exception: The original practitioners of the Orleans method used marginal wines to make vinegar, Origen Premium Vinegars uses
The conversion of wine to vinegar takes several weeks, after which it is aged for several months. Some casks are macerated with very carefully selected herbs, fruits, and nuts.
In addition to pure Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vinegars, the Origen line now includes the following flavored vinegars:
Basil Red Wine Vinegar
We tasted all by briefly soaking white sugar cubes in small cups of vinegar, holding the cubes between thumb and index finger, and sucking.
I returned home with as many bottles of these marvelous vinegars as I could carry. But once back in my own kitchen, I was torn between the urge to hoard them—at the time, the Origen partners had not yet found a US distributor—and the urge to profligately experiment with them.
Happily, the Origen Premium Vinegars now have at least limited distribution in the US. If you’re a retail customer, you can buy individual bottles at www.casaoliver.com, a Seattle-based company specializing in Spanish products.
If you’re a wholesaler interested in case purchases, contact www.zocalogourmet.com.
Origen’s own website (www.vinagresorigen.cl) gives recipes and suggestions in Spanish and English for using the vinegars, i.e., Mint Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Vinegar with lamb or chocolate desserts, Cherry/Raspberry Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Vinegar for duck, or Basil Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Vinegar for a winter-appropriate lentil salad (see
If fresh tomatoes were in season, you can bet this is the vinegar I’d grab for drizzling, along with a great olive oil, over alternating slices of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.
An Exclusive Opportunity:
My colleague David Rosengarten, editor of The Rosengarten Report, the newsletter for uber-foodies, has formed what he calls the "Real Vinegar Club!" David says,“If you think BALSAMIC is as good as it gets...Let me introduce you to REAL vinegar!" His vinegar selections are THE Key to the Most Delicious Salads You and Your Guests Will Ever Taste! Please click on the following link to learn more.... www.davidrosengarten.com.
His next vinegar selection is a rare, artisanally produced, 3-year old, apple cider vinegar from Devon, England. Sign up quickly as you'll not want to miss this amazing vinegar. It's just perfect for drizzling over Spring's baby greens!
LENTIL SALAD WITH
For the lentils:
For the vinaigrette:
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Add the Spanish onion and cook until the onion is translucent, but not browned. Add the garlic, carrot, and celery and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more, again, not letting the vegetables brown.
Add the lentils, water, and bay leaves to the vegetables and cook until the lentils are tender, but not mushy. (Monitor the water level to make sure they don’t dry out or scorch.) Drain the lentils, discarding the bay leaves and any unabsorbed liquid.
Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette. In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine the vinegar, remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil, lime zest, and salt and pepper to taste. Shake vigorously to emulsify the vinaigrette. (Alternatively, whisk the ingredients in a small bowl.)
To serve, combine the lentils with the red onion, bell pepper, and cilantro.
My Chilean friends have coached me tirelessly in pronouncing several Spanish words, but “pebre,” is one I’m still insecure about. It has more syllables than you’d expect (if you don’t speak Spanish), and to my ear,
What I do know is that I love it. It’s a fresh, bright-tasting salsa-like relish that works with everything from eggs to seafood to lamb. With a splash of Origen Green Chili Chardonnay Wine Vinegar, I can assure you…it’s over the top.
In a bowl, combine the cilantro, green onion, and chile peppers. Add the vinegar and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. If a bit more juice is needed, add a tablespoon or so of cold water. Best when made no more than an hour or two before serving. Makes about 1-1/4 cups.
Packing light is not only an eco-friendly thing to do, but it could save you money upon check-in. United Airlines recently announced it will begin charging passengers with discounted fares $25 to check a second bag.At this writing, the surcharge does not apply to passengers who pay full fare or who belong to the airline’s frequent flier club. Other airlines will be watching the reaction to United’s announcement with great interest, of course.
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