A Vinegar with Local Flavor
Vinegar has ancient roots that date back thousands of years to Babylonian times. A product resulting from the fermentation of fruit, its etymological origin is aptly derived from the Latin ‘vinum’ (wine) and ‘acer’ (sour). Though a staple in modern household kitchens, neither its fermentation process nor its local production is well known. For one area farm, however, vinegar is one method of making the most of their fall harvest.
Wheeler’s Orchard and Vineyard is a small, 5-acre farm consisting of an abundance of approximately 500 trees in Dunlap, TN. Over 15 varieties of apples are grown in the orchard, including old favorites like Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, and Turley Winesap, as well as newer varieties like Fuji, Mutsu, and Braeburn. The vineyard boasts 20 varieties of grapes, including red, purple and white concords, as well as several varieties of seedless table grapes and wine-making grapes. In the late summer and fall, grapes and apples are harvested to be pressed into fresh, unpasteurized apple cider. Because the cider isn’t pasteurized, it has a shorter shelf-life than its commercially produced counterparts. Rather than letting their precious product go to waste, Jane Mauldin, Farm Manager for Wheeler’s Orchard and Vineyard, discovered that what wasn’t sold at market could be preserved and repurposed as vinegar.
Describing vinegar production, Mauldin compares it to the process of making kombucha. An apple cider vinegar with the “mother,” or live culture, is mixed with fresh-squeezed juice. Recipes vary, but Mauldin prefers a mixture of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts juice for Wheeler’s product. The aerobic process requires a minimum of two weeks during which the combined ingredients are exposed to air in a cool, dark place. The resulting taste will greatly depend on the flavor of the original cider or juice as well as the length of time it is left to sit. Mauldin explains that a fairly sweet cider will produce a vinegar with a smooth, sweet taste. If a more acidic flavor is desired, the mixture must be left to sit longer. Once the desired flavor has been reached, the vinegar is strained from the mother, bottled, and refrigerated for sale.
While consuming large amounts of vinegar daily for multiple years has led to adverse effects such as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in some people, when used in typical cooking methods, no negative effects are known. In fact, researchers are still studying the possible connection between vinegar intake and blood sugar control as well as weight loss. Although these study results are not yet conclusive, vinegar serves as a low-sodium, low-calorie, highly versatile ingredient. When used to make homemade dressing, sauces, and pickles, fresh vinegar extends the shelf life of local fruits, incorporating the bounty and flavor of autumn well into late winter months. Innovation like that of Wheeler’s Orchard is yet another means by which our region enjoys a diversity of foods that can be derived from and support local growers.