Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about vinegar. We have a bottle or three (actually, full disclosure: 12) in the cupboard at home, and we use it on our salad, or to balance a sauce that is too sweet, or to wash our windows. Unless we’ve paid upwards of $50 for a small bottle, most of us have never tasted real balsamic vinegar. And it’s a safe bet that very few of us have tasted vinegar made by hand, in small batches, by a Benedictine monk at Our Lady of the Resurrection monastery in Lagrangeville, near Poughkeepsie. As a result, most of us have never tasted real vinegar.
Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette was born in the French Pyrenees, but he has been living in the Hudson Valley for 40 years, and in his current monastery since 1977. The Benedictine order is predicated on a simple rule: ora et labora. “Pray and work” is the essence of the monk’s life. In Brother Victor’s case, the work is the patient, painstaking crafting of superlative artisanal vinegars in a dark, quiet room full of five-gallon glass carboys pungent with the complex sweet and sour smells of fermentation. His red and white vinegars are made in two larger, 18-gallon jugs, and all the vessels have paper tags taped to them showing the variety and date of the contents. All of the containers are open, allowing the vinegars to breathe, since the “mother” needs oxygen to do its work.
Vinegar—acetic aid—is made by bacteria that oxidize alcohol. The mother is a combination of acetic acid bacteria and soluble cellulose that forms naturally on alcohol exposed to air for a long period. Brother Victor-Antoine uses a mother brought 40 years ago from a farm near his hometown in France where vinegar has been made for centuries, and he has been using the same batch since to make his own. “Nobody makes artisanal vinegar the old-fashioned way anymore,” he explains, “but we do it for love and quality. It cannot be done artificially; we have to learn to be patient.” Brother Victor-Antoine makes seven varieties of vinegar, based on a 12th-century French recipe. He simmers the wine or cider with herbs and spices at the outset, before adding the mother, then strains out the aromatics for fermentation. He stresses that his vinegars are not herb-infused; rather, the herbs impart a savory richness to the result without overpowering the qualities of the fruit. And the results are astonishingly good; due to the patient care that goes into their production, the vinegars have tremendous subtlety and depth of flavor. These vinegars make mass-market versions taste like cleaning products.
The apricot vinegar is made from white wine, and aged with organic dried apricots. The fruit gives an elegant character to the vinegar, and the Special Reserve—fermented for over a year—is wonderfully balanced and versatile. The raspberry is made from equal parts of the white wine vinegar and raspberry juice, then left to ferment for more time. It’s not at all cloying, like some commercial varieties, instead offering a delicate raspberry note within the bracing acidity of the vinegar. The white and rosé examples are very strong and assertive. The sherry has a beautiful walnutty core, like a good oloroso, that begs to be whisked together with some walnut oil and poured over greens, pears, toasted nuts, and local blue cheese. The cider vinegar is bright, sharp, and clean, with the taste of a sweet, juicy red apple floating in the middle like a hologram. It almost wants to be drunk as is. The red wine—regular and Special Reserve—turns a humble homegrown salad into something profound, with unexpected overtones hovering over the greens. Any of the above mixed with honey or maple syrup would make for a superlative gastrique to glaze duck, pork, tofu, or anything else that likes to be sweet and sour. The vinegars all age at room temperature between three and twelve months, depending on the contents and the season. Brother Victor knows when a given batch is ready by tasting: “You can’t rush it; when it’s ready, it’s ready,” he says. “All of a sudden, one day it turns into vinegar.” Those with added fruit tend to ferment faster, due to the extra sugar.
The apricots, rosé, and sherry come from California, but just about everything else is locally sourced, and almost all the ingredients are organic. The monastery bottled 1,200 bottles in 2008, but only 800 in 2009 due to decreased demand in the recession. Brother Victor-Antoine hopes to be back up around 2,000 this year as the economic climate improves. Every summer, the monastery holds its annual vinegar festival on the weekend following the July 11 feast of Saint Benedict. This year it will take place July 17 and 18, and will include other local producers and retailers whom Brother Victor-Antione has invited to participate. Ann Shershin, a self-described “friend of the monastery,” volunteers once a week and helps organize the festival. “It’s educational and fun, and it gives people a chance to learn about and taste the vinegars,” Shershin says, remembering, “one year, a couple came all the way from Atlanta and bought some of everything.” The monastery also holds a Christmas fair in December.
Robert Mullooly is an assistant professor at the Culinary Institute and chef-instructor at the CIA’s St. Andrew’s Café, which focuses on local ingredients. “I just think they’re fantastic,” Mullooly says of the vinegars. “They have good acid, but a subtle sweetness at the same time.” He’s using the cider vinegar in chutneys and smoked ketchup, and the sherry vinegar on salads. Of the sherry, he says, “I’ve never tasted anything like it before. It’s so obvious that it’s natural and not processed in any way.” François Bizalion owns Bizalion’s Fine Food in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he sells Brother Victor-Antoine’s vinegars. (He will also be at the vinegar festival, selling some of the small-production European olive oils that his store specializes in). “The monastery vinegar has a distinctive taste; it is not overly acidic, so one can discern the wine or the apple at the source. When on the palate, you can taste the mild sugar of the fruit and its distinct aroma. It also has a cooling effect, a freshness that cannot be matched by commercial products.”