For Patrick Robertson, vinegar isn’t just a condiment, it’s a lifestyle.
“I work maybe a month a year, spread out over the year,” he said, after setting up shop at the Fernie Mountain Market in Rotary Park along with dozens of other vendors on Saturday. “We travel a lot so when we go away the vinegar ages and gets better.”
“It’s an artisan type business that grounds me,” he continued. “It’s not a job.”
A founding member of the Fernie Brewing Company, Robertson decided to sell his stake in the business about 15 years ago but wanted to stay in the fermentation industry.
The self described “foodie” decided the vinegar industry was the perfect fit and over the last decade he and his wife Loie have parlayed the tasty, acidic liquid into a business that almost runs itself.
In addition to making a product that’s used to make everything from salads to soda pop, the government does not tax the sale of vinegar as severely as it taxes alcohol, which adds to his profits, he pointed out.
He sells most of his product to high-end restaurants. In Fernie, private citizens can buy it at Le Grand Fromage or at farmer’s markets if the Robertsons decides to set up shop.
Robertson produces his product, a cabernet red wine vinegar, out of his two-car garage in the Annex neighbourhood of Fernie. He uses an old French technique, known as the Orleans method. The process involves getting grape juice from the Okanagan to make wine, which he stores in French Oak barrels.
Inside the barrels, wine is slowly turned to vinegar by the “mother of vinegar” which is a bacterial culture that helps turn alcohol into acetic acid, from which vinegar gets its flavour.
A microbiologist by trade, Robertson has cultured his mother of vinegar over the last ten years. He cares for and preserves it to ensure the vinegar maintains a consistent taste.
The vinegar is aged for more than a year, which matures it and imparts it with light oak flavours that soften its acidity, resulting in a full-bodied and nutrient rich product. Robertson replaces the French Oak barrels every couple of years once their vanilla and spice flavours have been depleted.
An unabashed vinegar proponent, Robertson said it is a condiment on par with salt and pepper and should be used in most of your cooking.
“You just use a little bit and it brings up all the flavours,” he said.
The Robertson’s have been on a number of fact finding trips to Europe. On a recent visit to the City of Orleans, France, they saw where merchants first turned soured wine into a booming vinegar industry in the 14th century.
Boats docked at the French port off-load soured wine or vinegar. That way, wine producers did not have to pay the tax in Paris on wine that had soured. The vinegar was so enjoyed by the aristocracy that a royal decree was enacted making the Orleans style product the only vinegar to be served to the king.
Robertson noted Europeans use a lot more vinegar than North Americans, which is a shame because the acidic liquid can have a number of health benefits, he said.
For inspiration, the Robertson’s have listed a number of vinegar based recipes on their website including The Robertson Thirst Quencher, a delicious beverage made from wine vinegar, simple syrup and club soda.
Robertson called it, “a good thirst quencher on a hot summer day.”
You can also add an ounce of vodka to the mix to enjoy a vinegar martini, he said.
He also counseled against going out and buying store-bought salad dressing as an equal quantity of oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper will make a fine vinaigrette.