From a copper engraving of a plague doctor in Rome, circa 1656

Across Europe between the the 14th and 17th centuries, a number of ‘Plague doctors’ donned protective suits like this to walk among dead and dying plague victims. Unsure of what might be causing these plagues, these suits were armor against a hazardous environment and are quite reminiscent of modern day hazmat suits. The image above depicts a late example from the city of Rome, complete with heavy cloak, leather gloves, glass goggles and conical birdlike beak covering the mouth and nose.  The impression of a carrion eating, scavenging crow or raven is almost impossible to miss.  Perhaps this engraving was intended as an early macabre from of editorial cartoon.  The significance of the conical or pointed beak is that various herbs and powders were stuffed into its end, in hopes of filtering out any lurking invisible plague vapors that might be inhaled.

Today, centuries later, some carnival costume mask may remind us of those heinous plagues. During the “Black Death” as much as half of Europe died in the span of four years.  There were many large epidemics  in history that are somewhat erroneously called “plagues” since these were probably not caused by the infectious pasteurella pestis bacillus. From antiquity to present the number of proper plague outbreaks caused by this bacillus though, might still number well over one hundred.  Between the 14th and 17th centuries the plague quit, then returned about 15-20 years later (almost with every generation).  The European rat population (where the bacillus is apparently not endemic) was repeatedly wiped out and took time to recover as well.

It is generally accepted however that there were three ‘great waves’ of plague pandemic in world history. The first noticeable “great” plague is called the “Plague of Justinian”. It occurred in 541 AD and was centered in the Eastern Mediterranean / Byzantine Empire area. As many as 5,000 people a day died in the streets of ancient Constantinople (by far the largest city in Europe at the time – named Istanbul today). In a year’s time this bout of plague killed perhaps 25 million people including the emperor Justinian himself.

The next and biggest great die-off is known as the “Black Death” which began in 1346 and lasted for seven years. This plague decimated perhaps 75 million people or approximately 1/6th of the world’s population. It is thought to have made its way from China or Central Asia (where the bacillus is indigenous in local rodents) along the Silk Road by caravan to the Mediterranean Ocean where ships carrying other rats or mice – further disseminated bacillus carrying fleas to ports throughout Europe and North Africa.   Europe especially, was remodeled by the Black Death.

The less disruptive, less specific “Third Pandemic” as it is called, lasted for more than a century (between 1855 and 1959) and was responsible for at least 12 million dead in China and India.  During this period the pneumonic form the plague ran rampant in Mongolia. All of the major epidemics of plague are thought to have originally blossomed outward from Central Asia.   Right now the pasteurella pestis bacillus can be readily found on any day, in the dirt or among rodent colonies living on the Asian, African, North or South American continents.  There is an ongoing occurrence of bubonic plague today, in Madagascar which broke out in 2014 and hasn’t yet faded away.

In humans the acute infectious disease caused by the bacillus Pasteurella pestis occurs in three forms: bubonic, pneumonic & septicemic.  The most common form bubonic, is characterized by buboes (bumps or blisters / inflammatory swelling of a lymphatic gland, especially in the groin or armpit).  Pneumonic plague  infects the lungs instead of lymph nodes.  Less common than the bubonic form but more deadly, the pneumonic form can be contracted by a flea byte or by airborne inhalation of the virus from an infected person.  Septicemic plague attacks the blood and causes blood clots but is rare.  Which ever form of plague is encountered, treatment with antibiotics has supplanted the treatment with sulfa drugs used in previous decades.  Early detection is still paramount for survival.

Segue to Vinegar

Vinaigre des 4 Voleurs / Four Thieves Vinegar

There is a story with various versions that dates back to one outbreak of plague in the city of Marseilles, France.  It seems that four incarcerated thieves (possibly caught for robbing the sick or dead) were pressed into labor.  They were forced to handle, transport and bury the corpses of plague victims.  Miraculously, the thieves continued to survive this punishment detail day after day while others about them were dying like flies.   Apparently the thieves routinely applied a concocted ointment they received from a local medicine woman.  Their survival was probably the result of certain herbs in the ointment acting as a repellent to the plague carrying fleas that transmitted the pestis bacillus.  The salve or ointment started with white wine vinegar as a foundation to dissolve and preserve the essence of these herbs.  In a version of the “Four Thieves Vinegar” believed to be authentic; angelic, horehound, meadowsweet, wild marjoram, campanula, camphor, cloves, rosemary, sage and wormwood were used. At least the last six herbs listed have aromatics that repel insects – like parasitic plague infested fleas.

The English word “vinegar” comes from the French phrase “vin aigre” – which means sour wine.   For as long as mankind has had alcohol to drink (about 9,000-10,000 years) he has had vinegar too.   The ancient Babylonians used vinegar as a condiment and Cleopatra used vinegar to win a bet.
Any plant sugars in solution can be fermented to create alcohol.  That alcohol (ethanol) can by deliberation or by neglect be exposed to open air and subsequently turned into vinegar by a different fermentation caused by acetic acid bacteria.

The “acetobacter” genius of the acetic acid bacteria (acetobacteraceae) family is the one most commonly used to make vinegar or to supply vinegar fermentation starter cultures (often called the “mother of vinegar”).   Products that are labeled vinegar usually contain a minimum of 4% acetic acid while the remainder is water, flavorings and trace chemicals.   Vinegar doesn’t spoil if sealed and has a practically indefinite shelf life.  It may oxidize, lose its aromatics or lose some water to evaporation if exposed to open air but it does that slowly .

Types of vinegar

The most common vinegars are cider, wine, malt, rice, balsamic and distilled. Today those have been joined by many flavored or seasoned variants. Vinegar can be produced from all sorts of things including coconuts, honey, beer, maple syrup, potatoes, beets, malt, grains, molasses, dates, sorghum, fruits, berries, melons and whey.

Wine vinegar is self explanatory.  It can occur in a few weeks or months after acetic acid bacteria in the atmosphere come into contact with wine. Aceobacter can spoil a soggy wooden wine barrel for example, if this is left too long unfilled and unused.   Malt vinegar which is popular with “fish and chips” is of course equivalent to spoiled beer.   Beer is usually fermented from barley and barley malt.   Scotch whisky can be made entirely of malted barley.   Malt is grain that has been germinated and has started to sprout.   The term “distilled vinegar” is a tad bit misleading because the vinegar itself is not distilled – but it is made from a concentrated source of ethanol. Authentic “Balsamic vinegar” is a very prestigious and expensive product that is first cooked and reduced from a white grape must, then fermented and then aged for a very long time in a succession of different aging barrels.


* “acid is second only to salt for elevating the flavors of your cooking. Just a few drops of acid in the form of citrus or vinegar can make a dish more complex — “brighter”

Vinegar is an important foodstuff and food preservative.  Vinegar can also be used to remove rust, prevent dandruff, soften stiff paintbrushes, kill warts, clean glass, clean tile grout and toilet bowls.   Like a vinaigrette salad dressing, a mixture of olive oil and vinegar make a fine furniture polish.   After the famous Holy Roman Emperor / King of Germany and Italy known as Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190) drowned in the Saleph River (modern day southern Turkey) during the Third Crusade, his army collapsed.   His body was put into a wooden barrel and preserved with vinegar for the long trip back home.

Many sauces and food condiments like mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, spreadable mustard and pickle relish contain vinegar.  When Americans see a preserved cucumber they say “pickle” while in Ireland, Australia or the UK people might call the same item a “gherkin”.   A gherkin is actually a variety of cucumber and a cucumber is far from the only produce that can undergo the “pickling” process.   Beets, carrots, onions, tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, peaches, cherries and pears are frequently pickled as well.   There are several variations of the pickled cucumber or gherkin including: half or full sour, Polish style, sweet, dill, kosher, bread & butter and cornichons – those tiny little tart French pickles preserved with vinegar and spiced with tarragon.

Salt which was treasured in the ancient world, was used to preserve meats, eggs, vegetables and fruit because it drew moisture out of the foods and in so doing it inhibited the development of bacterial spoilage.   Produce can be preserved by a few different salt curing methods like dry salting, brining (strong salt solution), low salt fermentation and pickling.  Low salt fermentation and pickling with vinegar are similar processes in that lactic acid created in the first instance or acetic acid introduced by the second process, both lower the pH to a level that is hostile to bacteria. It takes a pH of about 4.6 or lower to kill most bacteria.  Clostridium botulinum is the tough, resilient and dangerous anaerobic bacteria that can flourish in stored foods that do not have high enough acid concentration or that were not heated hot enough or long enough when they were canned.

There are two traditional ways to go about pickling; the slow way by fermentation or the fast way with vinegar.  The fast way involves soaking some vegetable example in a salt bath overnight. This removes some water and better allows vinegar afterward to penetrate the vegetable’s tissues.   Alternatively, pickling lime (calcium hydroxide) is used instead of salt for this initial step.  Lime has the effect of making a vegetable like the cucumber crisper; it is there for the texturing effect alone and not for preservation.  The lime or salt solution is rinsed off after about 24 hours.  Vinegar, accompanied usually with antimicrobial pickling herbs and spices (like cinnamon, mustard seed, cloves & garlic) is then added.

German sauerkraut, Korean kimchi, sour and dill pickles are examples of the slower fermentation method of pickling which might require a couple of weeks to a couple of months.   Surrounding produce in brine solution deprives undesirable bacteria (most types) oxygen to grow but creates a favorable anaerobic environment for lactic acid bacteria.   Lactobacillus bacteria then ferment or convert natural sugars into lactic acid.

* A typical process for making sauerkraut using this slow pickling process is to place unwashed shredded cabbage into a sterilized stone crock.   Some outer leaves on the cabbages may be removed but wild yeast are to be otherwise retained.   Salt is repeatedly sprinkled between thin layers of shredded cabbage and packed firmly down.   Finally a dinner plate or something similar and additional weight (preferably in the form of a limestone rock) presses everything down; a sanitary cloth covers the crock.   In the process of waiting 4 to 6 weeks for nature to take its course: water is pulled by salt and pressed out by weight to form a brine solution.   Also a small amount of lime is dissolved from the rock which assists in the formation of lactic acid and provides the sauerkraut with extra flavor.

Products preserved by the two pickling processed mentioned above should be safe to eat for several months afterwards.   Cooking with heat and/or refrigeration will prolong their longevity as food.   High acidity should prohibit most bacterial growth but occasionally the acidity of vinegar (acetic acid) used or lactic acid fermented is not adequate.   To be considered safe for longer periods, even pickled foods need to be subjected to the ‘long time duration at elevated temperature’ of proper canning technique.

Making Vinegar

Just as with pickling there is a fast way and a slow way to make vinegar.  The fast way involves inoculating a liquor or fermented juice with a starter culture of bacteria called “mother of vinegar”.   “Mother” itself is a cellulose or complex carbohydrate that forms as surface slime on vinegar that is long exposed to air.  Acetobacter bacteria are aerobic which means they are oxygen loving or thrive in air.   In fast commercial vinegar production, a source liquid which already contains ethanol is started with this bacterial culture and extra air is added to oxygenate and promote the fastest fermentation.  The fast vinegar method may take only two or three days to complete.   Slow traditional methods for making vinegar on the other hand might require a few months – to a year to complete.  Here the acetic acid bacteria must be captured from the air before fermentation can even commence.  Here a potentially useful surface slime might build up that can be skimmed off and collected for use as mother elsewhere.

Homemade vinegar

Web pages can be found on the Internet which give step by step instructions for how to make vinegar from a bottle of wine for instance.  Usually these instructions call for the use of some Mother of Vinegar.   Little containers of this can be purchased online if need be, from places like  It is very easy however to make vinegar the old fashioned way.  The best results would probably be returned by starting with a jug of simple, unpasteurized sweet apple cider.  Taking the top off and letting the jug sit for a week or two will allow wild yeast to make the cider alcoholic.  Another few weeks of exposure to air will create apple cider vinegar.   Again, adding a little ‘Mother’ if it is available will help speed the process.  At some point after the homemade vinegar becomes strong enough, it should be bottled.  Vinegar should be stored in a narrow-neck bottle with a tight seal to prevent oxidation and loss of flavor.  New vinegar should be aged for at least several months, to clarify and allow the flavor to mellow.

* Vinegar eels are just barely visible and it would take about sixteen mature ones laid end to end to equal one inch in length.  These tiny nematodes () like to hang out and breed in vinegar.   They consume the bacterial and fungal microbes that form “Mother of Vinegar”.  These worms can inhabit many vinegar products that are left too long exposed to air, because their microscopic eggs often ride dust particles that float around in the air.   In the U.S., commercial vinegar is filtered or pasteurized to eliminate these little creatures, but they are not toxic or parasitic.  Like the brine shrimp that are larger, vinegar eels are actively cultivated and used as food for young aquarium fish fry (baby fish).   A hobbyist might grow a culture of eels from apple cider/vinegar because their eggs come with the apples naturally.

*To make juice, apple fruit must first be macerated and squeezed through a press.  Filtered this becomes apple juice, unfiltered this becomes soft or sweet apple cider.  Fermented the juice becomes alcoholic – hard apple cider.  If frozen, ice can be pulled out leaving less water so this more concentrated form of hard apple cider becomes “applejack”.   The same process can be accomplished with a bottle of wine or beer but some of the liquid must be removed beforehand to prevent ice from bursting the bottle when it expands.  Of course this process would be illegal almost everywhere booze is normally sold because it is considered to be distillation (freeze distillation).  You don’t want to deprive your government of one of its most lucrative tax bases.

*The drip still can be made from pots and pans from about the kitchen. Euell Gibbons published images of the concept more than fifty years ago. A simple apparatus like this is appropriate for collecting the oils and fragrances of herbs. Just toss a handful of rose pedals or other herb into the water of the bottom pot.  Apply heat and droplets of vapor will condensate and drip into the cup.



5 thoughts on “Vinegar

  1. Productivity takes a hit.
    Aside from life’s little events the other reasons for the delay since the last post include: a new and unfamiliar computer with a new operating system version, new word processor (open source this time) & new graphics application versions (both GIMP and Photoshop) with confusing changes.

  2. Pingback: Pigments, Paints & Dyes | cactusbush

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