The mysterious Mother Vinegar

Only last Sunday, I was asked (begged actually) to procure "a bit of Mother" in a little jar for "a friend (a Restaurateur) who was willing to pay any price I wanted".

Not to mention another client in the United States, who also offered to pay any price for a jar with "Mother" in it, to use in his home-made vinegar.

Hang on a minute – who on Earth is this Mother?

Most of us will have seen her (or should I say ‘it’) in the barrels or carboys our grandparents used to keep their leftover wine dregs into.

This gelatinous substance forms (generally) on the surface of the liquid. This little blob, this little pudding, is a substance that looks like a prop from a Horror movie no-one knows quite what to do with, however, in the collective imagination, it has been held responsible for imbuing Balsamic Vinegar with its exuberant vitality across the Millenia.

Here it is


They subject this revered object to the same practices they would a newborn baby: wash it, stroke it, scrape off the old layers etc …. but its pointless, as the ‘Mother of Vinegar’ is, in reality, just a vehicle.

I don’t want to dispel too many myths, but in my humble opinion, it would be far better (and certainly a heck of a lot easier) if everyone understood, that by itself, this stuff isn’t a crucial factor in the production of our beloved Balsamic Vinegar.

True, it is formed in and lives on those substrates (wine, apple cider or pear juice) that are used to produce the "Vinegar" BUT… there is no guarantee that all the bacteria that are necessary for acidification are active in one, nor, above all, whether a piece of one still functions as a perfect starter after an arduous journey to a distant shore.

There are two main reasons for this:

1- Acetobacteria (the microorganisms that oxidise the ethanol into acetaldehyde and then into acetic acid) are extremely sensitive and touchy, and obey one of Murphy’s Laws: if anything can go wrong, it will :-)

As demonstrated by Prof. Giudici of the Department of Agricultural Science & Food at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, it is extremely difficult (virtually impossible) to reproduce a starter culture of Acetobacteria from scratch, even under ideal conditions (in a laboratory).

2- the Mother is actually nothing more exotic than a sheet of cellulose. The Acetobacteria, during their tireless metabolic labors, simply produce it as a "by-product" of their efforts. It forms in layers, one on top of the other, simply as a result of aerial oxidation. The Acetobacteria are aerobes, and just produce it along with acetic acid.

This is why the Mother often had to be "renewed" by fishing it out, "scraping" to remove the dead layers and washing it in wine vinegar to "regenerate" it.

What restores its function certainly isn’t the cellulose its made from, but the washing process itself! :-)

In short, just like any vehicle, it can be carrying welcome and unwelcome passengers alike, as far as bacteria are concerned!

Does this prove that the Mother is little more than a piece of paper then?

The Mother (dessicated) of Vinegar

The thing shown above is one such ‘Mother’, after its been dried out in the sun; this one’s obviously dark because its come out of a red wine casket, but if it had been in white wine (or apple cider etc), and you kept it stretched taut as it dried, it would turn into a piece of the finest white writing parchment :-)

So then, if the Mother is useless, what do you need to use?

Strictly speaking, you need to take a little sample of the product itself (the actual liquid) for vinegar-making purposes, which is obviously still young and vigorous (you can test it to see if its gone over the hill with time) and simply mix it into whatever you want to acidify, obviously ensuring that you are using the best conditions possible to optimize acidification (warmth and air).

More recently, attention has shifted away from the Mother, to the veils in a vinegar.

Veils are much sought-after in the preparation of Balsamico, and are a true sign of vigorous activity, but are almost impossible to obtain.



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