|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
OU will be surprised to hear," said Uncle Paul, "that
any sweetened substance will generate alcohol by a
remarkable chemical change called fermentation, and
that alcohol in its turn changes into vinegar. As sugar
is the origin of alcohol, it is sugar, in reality, that
makes vinegar. Here we see something generating its
opposite, sweet giving birth to sour."
"The same thing happens," Marie observed, "with milk
or with a slice of melon: they both sooner or later
lose their sweet taste and turn sour.
"Those are two good examples of substances which, at
first sweet, turn sour as soon as decomposition sets
in; but vinegar such as is used in cooking goes through
a little different process; for it comes not directly
from sugar but from alcohol. All alcoholic liquids are
good for making vinegar; nevertheless wine makes the
best and most highly valued. The very word vinegar
shows you how the thing itself is made, 'vinegar'
meaning nothing more nor less than 'sour
"Why, so it does!" Claire exclaimed. "I had n't noticed
it before. The two words fit together just right; not a
letter too many, and not a letter too few."
 "In wine," Uncle Paul resumed, "it is the alcohol, and
the alcohol alone, that turns sour. That is to say, you
can't make good vinegar without good wine. The more
generous the wine, or, in other words, the richer it is
in alcohol, the stronger the vinegar. People often make
a mistake on that point: they think that poor wine, the
final drippings from the wine-press, the rinsings of
bottles and casks, will in course of time take on
sufficient sourness. A great mistake. Such watery stuff
cannot possibly yield what it does not possess. As soon
as the small proportion of alcohol it contains has
turned to vinegar, that is the end of it; no matter how
long you wait, there will be no increase of sourness.
The rule has no exceptions: to obtain good vinegar use
good wine, wine rich in alcohol."
"But you have n't told us yet," said Jules, "what must
be done to change the wine into vinegar."
"That takes care of itself. Leave on the kitchen
sideboard an uncorked bottle of wine, not quite full,
and in a few days, especially in summer, the wine will
turn to vinegar. On the express condition of its being
exposed to the air, wine will turn sour of itself, and
all the quicker when a warm temperature hastens the
process of decomposition in the alcohol. That shows you
at once the care necessary for keeping table wines and
preventing their turning sour. If in bottles or
demijohns, they must be tightly corked with good
stoppers, since otherwise air will get in and the wine
will be in danger of souring. As cork is always more or
less porous, the top is covered with sealing-wax when
the wine is to be kept
 a long time; in a word, the bottles are sealed."
"Then it 's just to keep out the air," said Emile,
"that they seal the bottles with red, green, black, or
any other colored sealing-wax?"
"Merely for that reason. Without this precaution air
might gradually get into the bottle, and when it was
uncorked, instead of excellent old wine, you would have
nothing but vinegar. You see, if you wish your wine to
keep well, you must, above all, guard it from the air.
A partly filled demijohn or cask, opened every day to
draw out wine and then carefully recorked, soon goes
sour, especially in summer. If the wine is not likely
to be all used up for some time, the contents should be
bottled and carefully corked. In that way the wine is
in contact with the air only one bottle at a time, as
it is called for, and so cannot turn sour provided it
has been properly corked.
"Let us, then, accept it as a rule that if wine is not
to turn sour it must come in contact with the air as
little as possible. If, on the contrary, we wish to
change it into vinegar we leave it exposed to the air
in uncorked or imperfectly corked vessels. Little by
little, through the long-continued action of air, its
alcohol will turn sour. That is what happens to the
remnants of wine left in the bottom of bottles and
"Of all the seasonings used with our food, vinegar,
next to salt, is the most prized. With its cool, tart
flavor and agreeable odor it gives a relish to dishes
that without it would be too insipid. Its use is not
only a matter of taste, but also of hygiene, for
 taken in moderation it stimulates the work of the
stomach and makes the digestion of food easier.
Combined with oil it is an indispensable seasoning for
salad. Without it this raw food would hardly be
acceptable to the stomach."
"That is one of my favorite dishes," Jules declared,
"especially when it is made of spring lettuce; the
vinegar makes it taste so good, pricking the tongue
just enough and not too much."
"Vinegar is also used in the preparation of certain
well-known condiments—capers, for example."
"Oh, how I like them!" cried Emile, "those capers they
sometimes put into stews. Where do they come from?"
"I will tell you. In the extreme south of France, near
the Mediterranean, there is cultivated a shrub called
the caper-bush. Its favorite haunts are rocky slopes
and the fissures in old walls and rocks much exposed to
the sun. Its branches are long and slender, armed with
stout thorns. Those branches bend over in a graceful
green mass, and against the darker background of
foliage are set off numerous large and sweet-smelling
pink blossoms resembling those of the jasmine. Well,
these blossoms, before they open, are capers. As little
buds they are gathered every morning, one by one, and
vine-  gar of good quality. That is all that is done to them.
So when Emile smacks his lips over the caper sauce, he
is eating nothing more nor less than so many flower
"I shall like them all the better for knowing they are
flowers," the boy declared.
"In like manner gherkins are pickled in vinegar. They
grow on a vine much like the pumpkin-vine. Similar
treatment, too, is given to pimentos, sometimes called
allspice on account of their spicy taste, which becomes
unbearably strong when the fruit is ripe and coral-red.
I will remind you that all pickling with vinegar should
be done in vessels not glazed on the inside with lead.
I have already told you that ordinary pottery is glazed
with a preparation that contains lead. Strong vinegar
might in the long run dissolve this glaze and thus
acquire harmful qualities. Keep your capers, pimentos,
and gherkins in glass vessels, or at least in pots that
are not glazed inside.
"In conclusion I will tell you that vinegar has the
property of making meat tender. To insure tenderness in
a piece of beef it is sprinkled several days in advance
with a little vinegar to which have been added salt,
pepper, garlic, onions, and other seasoning, according
to the taste of each person. In this mixture, however
many of these ingredients there may be, vinegar plays
the chief part. This process is called sousing the
It is a little strange that although excellent cider is
produced in France, especially in Normandy, it seems not to be
used for making vinegar.—Translator's Note.
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