The heads-up for this article came from a warning post I spotted on a Facebook group for English-speaking vegans in France. Watch out – that bottle of vinegar in the kitchen cupboard might not be vegan! What? Surely vinegar is just, well, vinegar, isn’t it? Not always. Maybe you remember the furore in the UK some months back when M&S were found to be selling an allegedly healthy fruit drink that contained beef collagen. Well, a similar thing has been spotted on a couple of supermarket vinegar bottle labels here in France – and one of them was bio!
So, what exactly is vinegar?
Vinegar dates back to ancient times, and the name, in fact, is French meaning ‘sour wine’. Rather apt. It’s an ingredient that we almost take for granted, but have you ever wondered how it’s actually made? Basically, vinegar is just a solution of water and between 5 and 20% acetic acid. It’s made by fermenting ethanol (a type of alcohol). Any ingredient that contains ethanol, like wine or cider, can be made into vinegar using a bacterial culture. This is known as the ‘mother’. Often, if you buy organic/bio vinegar you’ll notice a strange creature developing in the bottom of the bottle. That’s a mother, and you can use it to start brewing up your own homemade vinegar. Just add it to an old bottle of wine you’ve got hanging around (not very likely in the VV household must admit). However, other than bio, most commercial bottles are pasteurised which tends to kill off the fermenting bacteria.
What varieties can you buy in France?
Vinegar has a whole range of uses, from salad dressings to flavour enhancing, a raising agent in vegan cakes, and even household cleaning tasks. The most common types you’ll see in the supermarkets are red wine, white cristal (clear), white wine (often flavoured), apple cider and balsamic. The most prolific seems to be red wine, which ranges from budget-based plastic bottles to bio and brand names. Maybe it’s because the base material is so readily available. In addition, you’re also likely to come across sherry vinegar (Xeres) and flavoured varieties like tarragon, nut and strawberry.
Tracking down tricky varieties
Two types you might have a bit more trouble tracking down are traditional English malt vinegar (like Sarsons). Check out the English aisle in the supermarket or shop online. Rice vinegar is easy to obtain if you have an Asian supermarket handy, but many of the supermarkets now have a world section with noodles, coconut milk, soy sauce and the like, and you’ll usually find it here. The range seems to be expanding as the French slowly become more adventurous.
It’s not just for cooking
The other common uses of this versatile ingredient are pickling and cleaning. In late summer, you’ll often see big five litre bottles of 10% strength white vinegar, especially in rural supermarkets. It’s a sign that the pickling season has arrived, and the crones get ready to preserve all the surplus from their potagers. This is the cheapest type. It’s great for cleaning as well as pickling, especially if you make your own household cleaning products using traditional methods like savon de Marseille and bicarbonate of soda. This alcool cristal vinegar comes in various strengths; Iv’e seen 6%, 8% and 10%
How can vinegar NOT be vegan?
The main purpose of this article was to warn fellow vegans in France that even when buying a product as innocuous as vinegar, you simply can’t afford to drop your guard. You need to check the label every time. Two bottles from different supermarkets have been spotted with ingredient labels bearing the words “beef collagen”. Now why any manufacturer would need to add this animal ingredient to a natural product that’s been around for centuries is beyond me. And my good friend Google had no answers either. The two brands noted were a Carrefour Red wine vinegar, own brand, and a Leclerc own-brand Bio Village. I’d be interested to know if there are any others out there. So, check your kitchen cupboard and leave a comment below if you find one.