I just finished reading a New York Times piece about one of my neighbors up here in the northwest who apparently dabbles in making spirits – the drinking kind. This is certainly not unusual, especially up here in Oregon, where it seems that everyone’s neighbor makes some kind of beverage – but this one was just a little out of the ordinary – it was a Douglas fir liqueur, or as its maker termed it, an “eau de vie” (apparently, such names add sophistication and therefore legitimacy to one’s efforts).
The description of how it’s made goes something like this: they go out into the woods, gather the new springtime buds from the Douglas firs, and drop them into “high proof wine distillate”, where they would apparently continue the melding of the flavors and the resulting fermentation whenever any vegetative product is introduced to a liquid. (Actually, the article states that barrels of the wine distillate are carried out into the woods, where the Douglas fir buds are added, and then lugged back to Portland to continue their marriage – why the wine is taken to the forest is not explained, maybe a trade secret of some kind!) It is then lugged back to be again distilled, and bottled as Douglas fir eau de vie.
OK, here’s what bothers me about this – I think it’s a real stretch to label this stuff, eau de vie, or liqueur for that matter – its simply distilled wine (brandy) with flavorings added – a not so uncommon commercial shortcut to making cheap imitations of anything down through the ages! Now, recognize this is my opinion, it’s certainly not illegal to use this label, just not entirely accurate – in my opinion! Notwithstanding the unique nature of this effort, it is not a distilled “essence” of anything but whatever the original wine was made from – it is simply a flavored brandy. Kind’a reminds one of being tempted to buy a beautiful bottle of “Passion Fruit / Pomegranate” juice at the grocery, and then reading the label which tells you that it’s really apple juice with “real and artificial” flavors added, and not too much of those at that.
Sometimes it’s painfully obvious to recognize these commercial attempts to hoodwink the buying public – but sometimes, it’s so skillfully hidden or obscured, that it’s quite difficult to know what’s really happening. And sometimes it’s easy to do because the buying public just doesn’t care, as is the unfortunate case with vinegar.
Vinegar and wine share many of the same characteristics, of course, since vinegar is at its heart simply wine whose fermentation is continued forward in time until the acids have been converted to acids. And just as our friend above would like us to believe that his eau de vie of Douglas Fir is the real thing, Cargill and ConAgra would like us to believe that all vinegars are alike, and that price alone is the difference. But, No, most vinegar sold today is of the cheating variety – that is, it’s simply a distilled product (easily and cheaply made) with added flavorings. Real vinegar, on the other hand, is made as carefully – and as skillfully as is fine wine, or even true eau de vie.
If you’d like to test this “fact”, the next time you’re strolling down your grocery aisles, stop at the vinegar section and check out Apple Cider Vinegar – a staple if ever there was one. The cheater type will be labeled exactly as the real kind, but under Ingredients, it will say something like, “Distilled Vinegar with Apple Cider flavorings”. But the real one will say, “Made with the juice of apples and diluted to a strength of 4 or 5%” (this is good – the natural process of turning fruit juice to vinegar results in a very strong product, which is much too agressive to use as is – our great-grandmothers diluted it too!). And Yes, there is a flavor – and price – difference.
And if you are still unconvinced, I suggest one last test (and if you try this and remain unconvinced, I’ll just give up) – go to the Specialty Vinegars section of your grocery and see if they have a small bottle of Pear Vinegar – if you find it, it will be expensive, and it will have been made the correct way. Buy it and use it to make your next vinaigrette – and be ready to have your socks knocked off. I’m betting it will open a new world to you – or at the very least, it’ll give you a great example of my intended premise.
There are times when I fear that we, as a nation, have lost our ability to discern good tastes – or to care about them at all. The attitude seems to be, If it’s cheap, it’s good! And then I see pockets of culinary appreciation, but never in large doses. You find a great new restaurant in your neighborhood, but sadly, in 6-8 months, it’s gone. You hear about a great new cheese producer, and before you get a chance to taste it for yourself, Kraft has bought it up. And sadly, this new economic instability we are experiencing cannot do anything positive in support – it will only move everything underground and out of sight once more.
All this leads me to the thought that if we personally feel an appreciation for good tastes and fine food, our sole recourse is to personalize it as much as possible – in my case, I shall continue my baking efforts as much as possible. And in this way, it doesn’t matter if there are no decent bakeries nearby, I’ll occasionally have an exceptional loaf anyway. And I’m encouraged by the thought that much of the food we today recognize as being exceptional was actually the product of a period of austerity and economic stress – perhaps we will again witness something out of nothing.
In any case, we have no choice, do we?