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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Vinegars
Foods From Spain History: Vinegar, an enduring commodity

Foods From Spain History: Vinegar, an enduring commodity

Vinegar is a product obtained from wine that has been acidified by the action of a bacterium that converts alcohol into acetic acid. By extension, all acid liquids obtained by fermenting other natural products, such as fruit and cereals, are called vinegars (as in cider vinegar, pineapple vinegar, rice vinegar...). It is the product of a controlled natural fermentation process.

The origins of vinegar

The origins of vinegar

Vinegar is closely associated with two concepts: flavor and preserving. As far as flavor is concerned, vinegar has been used historically as a condiment that adds an acidic zing to food, though the taste for specific flavors has shifted over time. References to its role as a preserving medium date right back to its beginnings, and mention is made of its use in sousing game and fish; as an antiseptic solution in which to immerse fish and vegetables; and as a liquid in which to poach meat and other foods to prevent their going off immediately.

The countless uses for vinegar in cooking include: escabeche (fried fish or meat soused in a hot marinade and usually left to cool before serving); marinades, dressings, preserves, sauces, pickling (this last is dealt with at length in the chapter entitled Olives and Pickles).

Though the history of vinegar has been little studied, it is closely intertwined with that of wine. Before the use of chemical additives and hermetic bottling in wine-making, vinegar used to be produced naturally when wine oxidized from over-exposure to the oxygen in the air.

Wine and vinegar in Ancient Egypt

Although historians are still debating whether wine-making originated in the southern Caucasus and the southernmost part of the Caspian Sea or in Ancient Egypt, the latter theory seems to be gaining ground. It is supported by Classical Greek texts, and the frequency with which the Romans imported Egyptian wine. From the Old Kingdom period (2575-2134BC) to the New Kingdom period (1550-1070BC), the tombs of the aristocracy were habitually decorated with imagery relating to wine-growing. The most recent evidence in favor of the Egyptian theory is a study by a Spanish research team, published in 2004 in the journal of the American Chemical 1.Society, whose results were expanded by a later thesis by one of its 2.authors. These publications reveal that three of the amphorae discovered in the funerary chamber of the pharaoh Tutankhamen contained three different varieties of wine: white (1,500 years earlier than previously thought); a type of sweet wine known shede; and red , the first evidence to show that red wine was being made 3,300 years ago.

It is reasonable to suppose that the discovery of vinegar would have occurred in the place where wine was first made, and indeed there are textual references to vinegar being used in both in food and medicine. We know, for example, that the Egyptians used it for pickling and for preserving radish and other vegetables, and also that they used it in a mixture with marble dust to speed up the process of giving birth.

Vinegar in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece, vinegar (óxos) was one of the three basic condiments used in cooking, the others being salt and oil. According to Plutarch (46-120 AD), the Egyptian god of agriculture, Osiris, was the first to taste the alcoholic drink produced when grape must fermented; another Greek author, the Athenian poet Anaxippos (4th C. BC), declares that vinegar “was already in use in the time of Chronos”, to indicate its ancient origins. The Greeks used to add various herbs (such as thyme) and spices to vinegar, and they also used it as a dressing for many of their dishes, especially vegetables, pork, poultry, and poor quality fish, which were sometimes prepared by being immersed in vinegar before being seasoned and cooked (in an early version of the adobo, or marinating, method used in Andalusia today). Vinegar was used for preserving, marinating or seasoning different types of bulbous vegetables (garlic, onions, leeks, hyacinth...), as an additive in cheese-making, for flavoring phakê (a traditional lentil soup or purée), and as the basis for many sauces. One of the most widely used sauces –primarily for therapeutic purposes – was oxymel (oxýmeli), a mixture of honey, vinegar, salt and water. Vinegar was also added to garum (gáros) thereby creating oxígaros; to hálme, a type of garum or brine which, when mixed with vinegar, made oxálme - an accompaniment to pork and fish 3.dishes; and to pisto negro, (black broth) a classic Spartan dish made up of left-overs of meat with blood, salt and vinegar

The origins of wine in Spain

The origins of wine in Spain

Until recently, vine-growing in the Iberian Peninsula was thought to have begun in tandem with Iberian-Punic trade in the 7th century BC. However, recent archaeological finds and paleobotanical research have revealed remains of the seeds and fruits of wild vine varieties (Vitis vinifera var. sylvestris, which occurs spontaneously), indicative of their being used for food in the southwest of the Peninsula from the Paleolithic period (3rd millennium BC) on, and of cultivated varieties being used from the Chalcolithic period (2700-1800BC) on. However, there is no evidence of any fermented products having been made from their fruit.

Given that the Phoenicians grew vines, and produced and exported wines made from their grapes, it might be expected that once they had come into contact with the Iberian Peninsula around 1100 BC, they would introduce their wine via its eastern and southern coasts. According to Strabo (64BC-24AD), vines were already being grown in the Phoenician settlement of Xera (Jerez) at the end of the 2nd millennium BC. It is equally possible that the first Greeks who landed on the Peninsula’s northeastern coast in the 8th century BC arrived bearing wine, since “…wherever Greeks set up a colony, vines 4.appear”, and while wine was their main drink, vinegar was one of their essential condiments. But the earliest archaeological evidence of imported species of vine being grown in Iberia dates back to the 7th century BC and trade with the Carthaginians, as the excavation of the Castillo de Doña 5.Blanca, in Cádiz has shown. It is no accident that the location of this site is still a major meeting of the ways in the present-day region of Jerez - one of the most prestigious historical sources of wines, for which it is known all over the world. Evidence has also been found to show that vines were quite commonly grown in the towns and villages of Iberia from the 5th century BC and, especially, from the Roman period on (from the late 3rd century BC). However, there is no evidence of there being vinegar in Jerez at that time.

The origins of vinegar-making in Spain

Wine vinegar probably came into use in the Iberian Peninsula at around the time when the Iberians were starting to trade with the Phoenicians. Vinegar-making must date back at least as far as the first Iberian-made wine.

Texts from the Roman period mention vinegar as a substance in habitual use, and some also report on its production and trade. Given that Hispania, and more specifically its constituent province of Baetica (present-day Andalusia), was the main supplier of wine to the Roman Empire, it seems likely to have supplied it with vinegar, too. The first written reference to this appears in the writings of Columella (4-70AD) in the 1st century.

The main Hispanic grape varieties came from the southern and eastern parts of the colony. One of the most prized was one that Pliny (61-112AD) refers to as balisca (though the Iberians called it coccolobis), of which there were two varieties , one that turned dry as it aged and another that became sweeter. There was also a red grape of lesser quality known as 6.aminnea.

Roman poet praises Sherry wine

One of the best-known wines came from Turdetania (an area that occupied part of present-day Andalusia, including the Jerez area, in Cádiz). It was regarded as a luxury product, and was sold in amphorae bearing the inscription vinum gaditanum (wine of Cádiz). Another famous one, mentioned by Pliny, was lauro: held to be one of the best wines in the world, it is thought to have originated in the Liria region, in present-day 7.Valencia. The Hispania-born Latin poet Martial (40-104AD) extols the superb quality of Ceret (Jerez) wine thus: Ceretana Nepos ponat, Setina putabis/Non ponit turbae (“May Nepos serve you wine from Ceret; you will think it came from Setia/It is not served to common folk”).

It makes sense to suppose that areas that produced wine of such quality, and in such quantity, would also have been sources of fine vinegars, though trade-related documents to prove this are few and far between. However, vinegar (acetum) was one of the most highly regarded condiments and preservatives in Roman cuisine and medicine. A container of oil (lagoena) , a salt cellar (salinum) and a bottle of vinegar (acetabulum) were regarded as essentials in the home of a citizen of the 8.Roman Empire. The custom survives to this day, and all restaurants in Spain have a receptacle holding different containers of vinegar, oil, salt and pepper at the disposal of customers for seasoning the food if they think it needs it. Apicius’ cookery book mentions different categories of vinegar, designated according to their source or flavoring: for example, vinegars from Ethiopia, Syria and Libya; vinegar flavored with cumin (cuminatum) , aniseed (anetatum) , coriander (coriandratum) , and laserpicium 9. (laseratum) .

Not all the different vinegars used in Roman cooking were wine-derived, however, one favorite was pear vinegar (mentioned in a recipe by Palladius (408-431? - 457/461?), and there were also marrow, bluebell, fig and other fruit vinegars.

Water and vinegar, a substitute for wine

In a pattern inherited from the Greeks, vinegar was still consumed in drinks, sauces and preserves. Oxymel, a mixture of vinegar and honey, was still drunk, and one particularly noteworthy sauce, known as oxigarum, was made by adding vinegar to garum; oxycrate, a mixture of water, honey and vinegar, was believed to be an effective treatment for gastric ailments; a mustard sauce (noted by Palladius) was composed of mustard seeds, honey, oil from Baetica and strong vinegar; and there were other sauces for fish, seafood and meat of various kinds. The taste for acidic and sweet-and-sour flavors is clearly reflected in Apicius’ recipes: a third of them include vinegar or other acidulates among their ingredients. Vinegar was, of course, still used as a preservative, either in an acid solution in which foodstuffs were immersed, or for boiling some meats (such as duck and other fowl), and certain vegetables (such as helenium and bulbous vegetables).

One of the commonest uses for vinegar in the Roman Empire was as an additive to the water that soldiers drank in the absence of wine. It gave the water a bitter-sweet taste, and the acetic acid served as a disinfectant and kept it drinkable. The acidulated water drunk by Roman soldiers was that period’s equivalent of a soft drink, and was known as posca, the word used for the liquid with which the compassionate soldier moistened the lips of Jesus on the cross as described in the New Testament (Mark: 15, 36) .

How vinegar was used in medieval Spain

In Europe in the Middle Ages, the habits and customs of the Ancient World continued as far as vinegar was concerned: mixtures with honey (or other sweeteners) and vinegar (oxymel) were still made as sauces for meat and fish, as recipes of that period reflect. For example, the first known Spanish cookery book, the Libre del Sent Soví, written in Catalan in 1324, includes a recipe for a sauce to go with venison consisting of a mixture of “salt, vinegar, arrope [grape must boiled down to a thick concentrate, as sweet as honey] in regular proportions”. This common combination of flavors appears again in the (unknown) author’s advice in a recipe for lamb’s intestines: “Season with salt, bitterness and 10.sweetness”. Oxigarum was still eaten, too, and furthermore the taste for acidic flavors in cooking became accentuated - a phenomenon that is one of the principal distinguishing features of medieval cooking in Europe.

The Moors who invaded the Iberian Peninsula from 711 on were also fond of acidic flavors in their food: they used fruits such as acidic apples, bitter oranges, pomegranates and other tart fruit. Despite the Koran’s prohibition against drinking wine, some periods were more permissive than others in Muslim Spain and vine growing was never abandoned altogether. Great care was taken, too, of Jerezana grapes, which were famed for their fleshy fruit and were eaten both fresh and dried (as raisins).

The acid-tasting condiments most frequently used in Spanish cooking were grape-derived: verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes, the most acidic of the edible acids) and vinegar. Over-acidity in food was corrected with honey or, later, cane sugar. Vinegar was used for boiling olives, capers and various vegetables, for making sauces and for marinating meat and fish. The marinade consisted of a mixture of sour milk, vinegar and morrî, a type of garum made from the guts of various in Al Ándalus. It was also used straight in salads, which were dressed then as now, as encapsulated in today´s popular saying: “La ensalada bien lavada y salada, poco vinagre y muy aceitada” (Salad should be well washed and salted, with just a little vinegar and plenty of oil). Another traditional use for vinegar that was carried through to the medieval period was its therapeutic application: the importance of dietetics from the 14th century on reinstated vinegar as a purgative and digestive 12.aid.

In 1264, Alfonso X (1221-1284), king of Castile, occupied the Jerez region, thereby making it the frontier between Castile and the Nasrid kingdom of Granada (the last territory in the Iberian Peninsula to remain in Muslim hands) and earning its main centre of population the enduring title of ‘Jerez de la Frontera’. The Christianization of this area of Andalusia provided new impetus for winegrowing and its products.

Acidic flavors for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike

The predilection for acidic or slightly tart flavors was common to all western food during the medieval period, as contemporary recipes show, and in the Iberian Peninsula it was a taste shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims. To give just one example, lettuce with vinegar was a dish eaten at both Christian Easter and Jewish Passover. There are also many recipes for strongly flavored (highly spiced) and sweet (sugary) dishes, but the dominant flavor in these dishes (almost two 13.thirds) is acidic, especially as created by the addition of agraz or vinegar which, in Spain and other Mediterranean territories, was sometimes replaced by acidic wines, lemon juice (from the 11th century on), bitter orange or other acidic fruits.

Wine goes to America. Maybe vinegar too

With the discovery of the American continent, exports began of wines and Spanish wine-making techniques from Castile to the New World. At the start of the 16th century, there are accounts in some chronicles of the Conquest of celebrations being held in the Americas at which Castilian wine was drunk, as at the conquest of Cumaná in Venezuela, and a banquet in Peru described by Francisco de Xerez (1504-1554) chronicler and secretary to conquistador Francisco Pizarro (1476-1541), Magallanes (1480-1521) and Juan Sebastian Elcano (1476-1526) were also well supplied with wine (417 wineskins and 253 casks of Sanlúcar wine) in readiness for the first circumnavigation of the globe.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, wine was an essential element in the Spanish diet, which explains why it was taken to the Americas by the first conquistadores and why they made efforts to grow vines in the newly discovered territories right from the start. When the expedition led by Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) discovered that there were wild species of vine in Mexico, different from Europe’s Vitis vinifera, he decided to cultivate the European variety and graft it onto native vines to provide a medium-term solution to the wine supply problem. The first Spanish colonizers of California (1697) took grape vines to the present-day United States for the first time. In 1769, a Spanish Franciscan friar, Junípero Serra (1713-1784), planted the first grape vine at the San Diego mission, thereby sowing the seeds of California’s enduringly thriving wine industry.

There is no documentary evidence of vinegar exports to America nor of its production in the newly found land, but one would think that the Spanish colonizers took vinegar with them with a view to maintaining their traditional foodways.

Rice Vinegar

One influence on Castilian vinegar may have been the discovery and habitual use of the rice vinegar used in making sushi (literally, ‘vinegared rice’). During the Muromachi period (14th and 16th centuries) a change took place in the Japanese diet: rice wine (Komezu) was invented, and started to be used as a substitute for fermenting fish in rice. Rice wine is obtained by fermenting rice: it is dense and smooth and tastes rather like white wine vinegar. The process of preparing fish using vinegar is known in Japanese as oshizushi, whose particle oshi- (literally ‘to push’) seems to be a transmutation of the Greek prefix oxi, which is cognate with óxos (vinegar). It would hardly be surprising, then, to discover that the idea of vinegar came from the west, since it was at this period that the first Europeans reached Japan: Portuguese traders (who introduced firearms) in 1543, and St. Francis Xavier and a group of evangelistic Spanish Jesuits in 1549.

Modern Era (16th – 17th centuries)

During the Modern Era in Europe, the medieval preference for flavors with an acidic edge waned slightly, yet mildly acidic elements remain a feature of half the recipes of the 14.period. This enduring predilection for bitter-sweet flavors is still in evidence in post-1750 Colonial Spanish cookery, in which vinegar plays a part, mixed with cane sugar or added as a finishing touch to many 15.dishes. Other traditional uses for vinegar start to be recorded in the dietetic recipe books known since the 16th century by the generic name of ‘libros de mermelada’ (marmalade books), which contain recipes for marmalades made with honey or cane sugar, preserves in vinegar, sauces, spiced wines, and soaps, perfumes and remedies. The reason for this interweaving is that, from the 16th to 18th centuries, cane sugar, honey and vinegar were regarded as dietary 16.remedies. Vinegar was believed to open the pores, thereby helping to convey food to all parts of the body.

Among many other consequences, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 into the hands of the Ottoman dynasty spelled the closure of Europe’s route to the Orient. In addition to the quest for an alternative route to the Indies, a new trade triangle was created between Africa (rich in gold and slaves), Cádiz (which exported wine, cereal and, later, products from the Americas) and northern Europe (source of manufactured goods). It was in this context that the powerful commercial link was forged between Cádiz, England and Britain throughout the Modern Era, giving rise to the establishment in 1585 of the Andalusia Company, and explaining the presence of so many English people in Jerez de la Frontera in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Sherry wine trade in the 16th c. and on

The market for the wines of Jerez had long since encompassed important exports to Flanders, England and Ireland, initially brokered by Pedro de Estopiñán of Jerez (1460/70-1505) (accountant to the Duke of Medina Sidonia, and conquistador of Melilla (the autonomous city located on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa) and later boosted by the marriage of Henry VIII (1491-1547) King of England and Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) in 1509. In 1561, the British Embassy made it known that imports of sherry wines were rumored to have reached the value of 200,000 17.ducats. Their quality was celebrated in literature - Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) described sherry as one of the best wines in the world; William Shakespeare (1564-1616) immortalized its reputation in his Henry IV (Shakespeare, regarded as one of the supreme figures in the history of English literature, embodied the English taste for ?sack`? in the ample figure of Sir John Falstaff who famously declares in Henry IV, Part 2 that "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack"). Even the British monarch and courtiers are known to have spoken highly of sherry and its qualities. And good wine is known to give good vinegar. Although exports of sherry wines to England and other European countries continued to flourish throughout the centuries, there is no documentary evidence about sherry vinegar exports until the 20th C.

Jerez-Sherry-Xérès vinegars

Jerez-Sherry-Xérès vinegars

Vinegar was a traditionally home-made product that the big sherry companies started to produce (retaining artisan production methods) from the 18th century on. As a rule, winery owners segregated wines afflicted by picado (acetification) into separate cellars so as not to spoil those around it. Vinegar, though a necessity, was perceived as a black mark against a bodega rather than a contribution to its kudos. Therefore vinegar was usually only for domestic use, and it was not until the mid 20th C. that sherry vinegar was exported. Nonetheless, some of the big firms started to devote attention to it.

In the course of the 20th century, sherry vinegar developed into one of Spain’s three regulated Designations of Origin for vinegar. It is made by entirely artisan methods, which entitles it to 3% of residual alcohol and a minimum acidity of 7% by volume. This vinegar gradually acquires a dark mahogany color as it ages: it is made from grape varieties Palomino Fino, Palomino de Jerez (a variety that is becoming increasingly scarce), Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel (all of them whites). Only two types of vinegar are marketed: Vinagre de Jerez, which has been aged for a minimum of six months, and Vinagre de Jerez Reserva, aged for a minimum of two years, but generally much older than the stipulated minimum, sometimes as much as 30 years 18.old.

Other pedigree Spanish vinegars

While sherry vinegars are the stars in their sector, there are two other big vinegar producing regions in Spain: Huelva Province and the little towns of Montilla and Moriles, in Córdoba, all in Andalusia.

Condado de Huelva vinegars

Wine and vinegar may well have been produced in this region since trade relations were established between Tartessos and the Phoenicians towards the end of the second millennium BC. However, the first written references to vine-growing in this area date from the 14th 19.century (a period when ‘reconquered’ parts of the country were being repopulated by Christians) and, especially, the 16th and 17th centuries, many of them recording shipments of Huelva wines destined for the Americas. However, it was in the mid-18th century that this winegrowing area began to acquire commercial importance, when families from La Rioja settled there. The 1751 Ensenada census shows that there were 7,907.2 acres under vine at that time. Something of a golden age dawned in the 19th century, but was undermined by the wave of phylloxera that destroyed the vineyards of Spain. In 1922, the area under vine was calculated at 34,594 acres, and in 1966 at 54,362. This latter figure remained more or less stable until 1972, when a policy was adopted of reducing the number of acres given over to viticulture that is still in force today. By 2004, there were 10,939.1 acres of vineyard in the region.

Montilla-Moriles vinegars

The region of Córdoba where Montilla Moriles wines and vinegars are produced has a winegrowing tradition stretching back to Roman times, but it was in the 19th and – especially – the early 20th century that trade in their wines began to take on importance.

Vinegar today

When Louis Pasteur (1822-1925) identified the cause of acidification in wine in the 1860s, he also ascertained how it could be avoided; from then on, vinegar-making became definitively an industrial process. Pasteur discovered that a bacterium (Mycoderma aceti or acetobacter) was responsible for converting alcohol into acetic acid. He knew that the phenomenon could only occur in the presence of oxygen. To avoid it, he invented pasteurization, which killed the bacteria, and sealed the container hermetically. Nowadays, the process can be avoided by sometimes adding sulphur dioxide to wine, which explains why it is so much more difficult to make home-made vinegar these days.

Vinegars gradually acquired status as excellent products in themselves, especially for use as dressing or condiment, as advances were achieved in modern canning and bottling. Sweetness, saltiness and acidity – flavors traditionally associated with different types of preserved foods – have been thrust out of the limelight by new, air-based and cold-based preserving methods that leave the original flavors intact. Vinegar has therefore graduated from its role as a necessity to become more of a gourmet product. These days, different varieties of top quality vinegars are being produced with the more demanding consumer in mind.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

The origins of vinegar/Wine and vinegar in ancient Egypt
Alabaster vase found in Tutankhamen's tomb, Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt. Licensed under Creative Commons by Leoboudv.

The origins of wine in Spain
Decanting basins at the Archeological Site of Doña Blanca, Cádiz, Spain. Licensed under GNU by Yuntero.

How vinegar was used in medieval Spain/Wine goes to America
Bronze statue of Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784) who planted the first grape vines in California, by Ettore Cadorin, US Capitol, Washington DC, USA.

Jerez-Sherry-Xérés vinegars
The watch and the Sherry bottle, Juan Gris 1887-1927) Licensed under Wikipaintings PD.