The health benefits and superior taste of Spain’s famous extra virgin Olive Oil have been much written about. But the gastronomic charms of its unique Sherry Vinegar are not as widely known – at least not beyond the gourmet’s kitchen.
Less cloyingly sweet than its Italian cousin balsamic vinegar, Sherry Vinegar “tastes supremely of Spain”, as cookery writer of the year (2013) Diana Henry says “Just one splash has the blur of red flamenco dresses flashing before your eyes”. (If you’re a fan of venison, you can try Henry’s recipe for Venison steaks with sherry and figs which is pretty magical.) Perhaps fittingly, flamenco and sherry hail from the same region of Spain: the city of Jerez, whose name was anglicized to christen the fortified wine we know as sherry.
The Solera Process
Sherry vinegar was born when sherry wines underwent acetic fermentation and turned to vinegar. At first the winemakers considered this a failure but it soon dawned on them that sherry vinegar made a wonderful condiment in its own right. Ever since the 1950s, the sherry bodegas (wineries) have given sherry vinegar the same respect they accord their wines, using mainly the popular Palomino grape but also producing sweeter vinegars with Pedro Ximenez grapes or occasionally the Moscatel grape. It is then aged in the traditional ‘solera’ process – in old oak sherry barrels, stacked three or more levels high. The youngest vinegars are stored in the top row of barrels and, as they age, are transferred to the lower barrels and blended with older vinegars in precise quantities before bottling. By law, sherry vinegar must be aged for at least six months and ideally up to 2 years, when it is known as ‘reserva’. This additional maturing gives the pale, golden liquid a subtle hint of oakiness and adds complexity to its naturally nutty flavour.
Authentic Sherry Vinegar
‘Vinagre de Jerez’ was the first Spanish vinegar to receive PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, which rules that authentic sherry vinegar must only come from the Spanish province of Cádiz, within a zone known as the ‘sherry triangle’ – an area between the city of Jerez de la Frontera and the towns of Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria.
How best to use it
Sherry vinegar tastes wonderful in a traditional vinaigrette (try 1/3 cup vinegar to 1 cup of olive oil, a teaspoon of mustard and some seasoning) or blended into an ice-cold Spanish gazpacho. And because the acidic nature of vinegar means that it breaks down protein fibers, it makes a great marinade, helping to tenderize meat. You can also use it to glaze vegetables like sweet potatoes, asparagus and globe artichokes. Or de-glaze a frying pan after cooking meat to make a delicious, syrupy sauce with the juices. Perhaps surprisingly, sherry vinegar can also work well in desserts – try some splashed over ice-cream, goat’s cheese or strawberries (just a dash, along with a little sugar, and leave strawberries to macerate for 2 hours or so), to balance sweetness and add a little piquancy.
Impressive Health Benefits
As well as making a gourmet addition to your larder, sherry vinegar also boasts of some impressive health benefits. Small daily amounts have been shown to raise ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) and lower blood sugar, which is good news for both diabetics and general weight loss. Historically, vinegar was often used to combat indigestion and it is now known to aid liver function too.
It’s always nice to know that something that tastes so good is good for our health too!