The History of Vinegar
The history of vinegar is very ancient. Repeatedly mentioned in the Bible, traces of it have been found in a vase from pre-pharaonic Egypt, some ten thousand years old, testifying that the Egyptians, as well as the Babylonians and the Persians, knew vinegar and used it to preserve food. After all, it was only thanks to vinegar that food could be transported over long distances. But vinegar was also mixed with water to make a refreshing drink, and the farmers and travellers of antiquity made extensive use of it.
In ancient Greece
The most widespread beverage in ancient Greece was called oxycrat, the drink of the people. It was a mixture of water, vinegar and honey, and was stored in special jars (oxydes). The "father of medicine" Hippocrates himself, an extraordinary physician whose doctrines dominated Western civilisation until the eighteenth century - more than two thousand years - prescribed it as a cure for wounds, sores and respiratory diseases.
The Romans quenched their thirst with posca, a mixture of water and vinegar whose sellers, often working-class, were like the coconut sellers in Italy today, or at least until recently. It was said that posca gave strength; wine, intoxication. (Posca fortem, vinum ebrium facit). A sponge soaked in posca was given to Jesus on the Cross by the Praetorian Guard. This was not cruelty, but an act of pity by a humble soldier towards what for him was simply a dying man. On the tables of their famous banquets, the Romans were never the acetabulum, a bowl containing a glass and a half of vinegar, in which diners dipped pieces of bread to cleanse their palates between one dish and the next, while aiding digestion. In Rome, almost all the recipes of Apicius, a great Epicurean gastronome of the first century AD, were based on vinegar. His near-contemporary, Columella, left us some recipes for making vinegar in which sour yeast is used to promote fermentation, as well as the immersion in wine of red-hot bars and burning pine cones to purify it and free it from bad smells. The Romans had various types of vinegar sauces, from the simplest to the famous garum, a fiery mixture of elements bound together by vinegar. Vinegar was also used to season acetarias, mixed salads of meat and vegetables or just vegetables that were served as an interval between a series of courses. And with a system known today as "marinating", the Romans used vinegar to preserve fried fish. For Pliny the Elder, who in his Naturalis Historia recommends it for all sorts of ailments, vinegar adds taste and pleasure to life. The Roman Legionaries were never without vinegar. They used it widely, starting with moretum, a salad of garlic, onion, rue, goat’s cheese and coriander dressed with olive oil and vinegar, which was their customary meal before a battle. During military campaigns, vinegar was used by the soldiers diluted in water as a thirst-quenching drink and as a body wash, to counteract the effects of life in the camp and non-serious injuries. During the war between Carthage and Rome, the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal (247-183 BC) crossed the Alps at the Little St Bernard Pass with infantry, cavalry and elephants in order to avoid the sea, where the Romans ruled. So much is well-known. Less known is how he did it. The route was narrow and winding, impracticable for the enormous elephants. So Hannibal ordered great branches to be wedged between the rocks that blocked the way, then burned. The soldiers then poured vinegar over the scorched rocks, making them soft enough to be broken, thus clearing the route for the troops and animals.
In the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, the art of vinegar-making was perfected and Agresto appeared, a vinegar made from unripe grapes whose fresh, sour taste, counteracted excessive fat in seasonings. In Orléans, in 1394, the newly founded Corporation of Vinegar Manufacturers imposed on its members the strictest secrecy regarding methods of processing, on pain of expulsion. This contributed to the fame of Orléans vinegars, which gave rise to a genuine industry that flourished over the centuries. In 1580, the city and surrounding area boasted thirty-three vinegars, partly because the local wines – light, fruity and low in acid – lent themselves to the transformation into vinegar. Orléans, moreover, was favoured by a geographical position that made it the last navigable port on the Loire for goods coming from the west. And since navigation was very slow for the boats travelling up the river, which were often delayed by low water levels, the wines arrived in port ruined and ready to be made into vinegar by blending with local wines in precise proportions.
Vinegar and the Plague
In the fourteenth century, the Plague spread across the whole of Europe killing one in three individuals and, until 1670, there was no year in which there was no outbreak of this curse, either contained or widespread. But in 1720, the last major epidemic in Western Europe, the inhabitants of Marseilles defended themselves against the air that "generates fevers" by holding a sponge soaked in vinegar in their hands, which was inhaled continuously and, on the part of the doctors, "attached to the nose" without ever breathing through the mouth and without swallowing saliva. The doctors were accompanied by a nurse who carried a vinegar bowl where the doctor repeatedly dipped his hands before touching the patient. Then, when the plague slowed down, the walls of affected houses were washed with vinegar.
The vinegar of the 4 Thieves
A bandage soaked in vinegar wrapped the foreheads of the "monatti", described by Manzoni, who carried the dying and dead; however, this did not preserve them from contagion. But four of them (some say seven), during the plague of Marseilles in 1720, managed to "work" while stealing and pillaging with impunity because they were immune, thanks to ablutions and gargles with an aromatic vinegar whose composition was unknown to them because each one contained an ingredient that was unknown to the others. Condemned to death for looting and robbery, their lives were saved by this vinegar, which has since taken the name of the four thieves' vinegar. Today a French scholar, Misette Godard, has tried to reconstruct the vinegar of the four thieves from the original recipe preserved in Marseille, a recipe that uses numerous herbs, cloves, camphor and absinthe, all combined with three pints of vinegar.
Vinegar and Cholera
An extremely ancient infectious disease originating in remote regions of Asia, cholera is still present today in many European countries including Italy, where it has often been diagnosed as acute gastroenteritis, a disease with which it has many affinities. Throughout history cholera has been fought with vinegar. In the nineteenth century (1830 and 1884) the government of Vienna, faced with the outbreak of cholera, issued a provision stipulating that the hands, before and after the visit to the sick person, and all fruit and vegetables before consumption, had to be carefully washed with vinegar. It is well known that cholera can be spread through food, hence the need for prophylactic measures and disinfection of food. The most recent experiments, as amply illustrated by a study by Franco Mecca ("Wine vinegar as a means of prevention in epidemics, and cholera in particular", Franco Angeli Editore) indicate that vinegar has a "pronounced and precise" disinfectant effect on cholera vibrions as well as on other intestinal pathogens. In contact with vinegar, the vibrions found on the surface of fruit and vegetables are destroyed in a time ranging from thirty seconds to one to two minutes.
Vinaigre de Toilette
In the nineteenth century there was a perfumery that supplied vinegar for use by kings and princes. According to an advertisement published by "Il Secolo" on February 15, 1873, the King of Portugal, the Queen of Holland, the Queen of Belgium and the Princess of Wales had been chosen as "testimonials" for a vinaigre de toilette "which gives water a pleasant fragrance and tonic and refreshing properties", preventing the formation of chilblains and giving "vigour to the muscles". The same advertisement also mentions an ammonium salt of vinegar as a necessary disinfectant for those who have to visit hospitals, leper colonies and "all places where there are fumes that are smelly and harmful to health". As a cleaning aid, vinegar has been used in all eras, both ancient and recent, preceding our own, in circumstances which, as Misette Godard writes, can only be imagined by comparing the European cities of that time to the Calcutta of today.
In the nineteenth century, ladies sniffed vinegar to revive them if they were burdened by a corset that was too tight or to get rid of a debilitating migraine. And the master of the house left a bottle of vinegar open next to the bedside of a sick person with flu so that those who visited and looked after him would not get sick themselves. But for our ancestors vinegar was also used in syrups, emulsifying potions, ointments, decoctions, mouthwashes, sublimates, lotions, eye drops, salves, soaps and swabs. It featured in rinses, frictions, gargles, foot baths, fumes, washes, inhalations, irrigations, bandages, poultices and more.