The lost art of artisanal vinegar-making is resurrected on Île d'Orléans

Vincent Noël and his wife France Gagnon are helping to bring the craft of vinegar-making back from the brink, employing methods that are nearly extinct worldwide.

Blackcurrant producers Vincent Noël and his wife brought bacteria strain from Languedoc-Rousillon in France

The products Vincent Noël makes have no preservatives. They are unfiltered and unpasteurized — the way he feels all vinegars should be made. (Allison Van Rassel/CBC)

When Vincent Noël set out to become an artisanal vinegar-maker, he travelled throughout Europe — to Poland, Scandinavia, Italy and France — to see how it was done.

What he discovered left him disappointed.

"Most of the vinegars we found was made from white vinegar, flavoured with fruit juices or essences," said Noël.

"It was almost impossible to find products that were made directly from the fruit, and according to ancient methods."

Today, Noël and his wife France Gagnon are doing their part to bring the craft of vinegar-making back from the brink, employing methods that are nearly extinct worldwide.

Their farm, Du Capitaine Ferme et Vinaigrerie, on Île d'Orléans, just east of Quebec City, is North America's largest organic producer of cassis — or blackcurrants, in English.

Bacteria imported from France

Next to their fields is an old vinegar cellar, one of the few left in the world. The pungent smell of vinegar wafts through the air — familiar, but less acrid than the smell of industrial white vinegar.

More than a dozen oak barrels sit inside the cellar, each covered loosely with cloth.

Every piece of metal inside the cellar — light fixtures, door handles, even the roof — has been eaten away by rust.

The sight of it would be a winemaker's nightmare, but it makes perfect sense for someone crafting vinegar.

It's a corrosive process — one that involves introducing acetobacter, a kind of bacteria that converts ethanol to acetic acid in the presence of oxygen, to the blackcurrant stock.

Instead of controlling the environment, like a winemaker would, Noël designed his cellar to promote the development of acetobacter, a bacteria essential for vinegar making. (Allison Van Rassel/CBC)

The blackcurrants are harvested when they are at their most ripe, then pressed into a concentrated juice which naturally contains very low sugar levels and high acidity.

"These are two of the most important criteria for making vinegar instead of alcohol," said Noël.

The liquid is then slowly fermented with yeast before being transferred into the oak barrels for aging. 

It takes six years of fermentation for the vinegar to be ready, and as it ferments, the sharpness of the vinegar mellows, "to make way for a much more charming experience," Noël said.

The vinegar maker brought the strain of bacteria he uses back from a craft vinegar house in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of France — the only place where vinegar-making is still being treated as an art, Noël said.

Pricey, but 'a source of enjoyment'

Craft products like his come with a higher price tag than some people may be used to, which Noël admits often ends up being a barrier for "those who are not used to vinegar as a source of enjoyment."

A 250-ml bottle of organic blackcurrant vinegar from Du Capitaine Ferme et Vinaigrerie costs $16. Compare that to regular white vinegar, which sells for about $1.50 a litre.

"Sometimes I think about making a more commercial type of vinegar, but it's against my philosophy," Noël said. 

"I want to make the best product possible, period. The world has lost that with vinegar."

Noël's latest creation, a melilot flower vinegar, is currently being tested by chef Arnaud Marchand at Chez Boulay, a restaurant in Old Québec that specializes in Nordic cuisine.

The next logical step for Noël and Gagnon is to start distilling their own fruit, he said.

They are also developing an alcohol, in collaboration with Distillerie de Montréal's Lilian Wolfelsberger.

"Most distillers in Québec buy grain alcohol from Ontario," Noël said.

"I want to go back to the basics and start off by making alcohol from my own fruit."


Allison Van Rassel

Food columnist

Allison Van Rassel is a food columnist for Radio-Canada and CBC. Camera in hand, she travels the roads of the province in order to share her passion for the work of local artisans.