The first time I heard about a vinegar mother was about 20 years ago in Paris. I was staying with my aunt, and for dinner she made one of those tiny salads of chicory, walnuts and red wine vinegar the French are famous for. I had been travelling for what felt like a million years; I was tired, dirty, starving and South African, and that salad was just not going to cut it for me. The minute I saw it I started planning to ‘go for a sightseeing walk’ straight after dinner – to the nearest café for some real food.
But it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted – crisp, salty, crunchy, slightly bitter and subtly sweet... totally satisfying. And there was something really amazing about the vinegar. When I asked her about it, my aunt took what looked like a piece of raw liver in a jar out of a dark cupboard and introduced me to her vinegar mother. It had been in the family for years, she said. All she did was feed it the odd leftover glass of wine, and in return it produced the softest, sweetest vinegar you can imagine.
When I left Paris, my aunt smuggled a piece of her vinegar mother into my luggage, which looked (and sounds) a bit Silence of the Lambs. It was like a bloodbath in there. I don’t know how I managed to get though customs without being arrested for matricide.
Even so, I managed to kill that mother very quickly, ‘leftover wine’ being something of an unknown concept in our household at that stage. But the taste of that vinegar has lived with me, and I’ve been trying to grow my own mother ever since. It’s harder than I thought.
But this Mother’s Day (aside from my own funny, strong, smart and loving real-life mother, of course – love you, Ma!), I’ll also be celebrating the vinegar mother finally growing in a dark cupboard in my kitchen, quietly getting sozzled on our leftover wine. We all grow up eventually.
The vinegar itself will take another two months or so to be ready – I’ll let you know how it works out. I have high hopes. In the meantime, I hope you all have an absolutely wonderful month, and happy Mother’s Day!