What's Fabulous: Cepa Vieja Vinegar
With Smoky, Deep and Complex Flavor
I was introduced to Cepa Vieja sherry vinegar from Jerez, Spain in Florence, Italy of all places. We had just arrived to a rented apartment where we'd be spending the Christmas holidays and I was stocking up on grocery essentials at Baroni Alimentari at the mercato centrale, what I and many others consider the best food shop in Florence.
When I asked her to recommend a good vinegar for salads and cooking, Paola Baroni, who owns and operates the shop with her husband Allesandro, handed me an old fashioned glass bottle. It was filled with a deep whisky brown liquid, its cork stopper sealed with red wax. I read the black and gold label: Vinagre de Jerez, Reserva, Cepa Vieja, vinagres de Yema. "This is not Italian," I said to Paola, a cheerleader for foods made by small Italian producers. She waved her hand in protest and said, "no, but it is very, very good." I learned long ago that when buying from Paola, to do what she tells me.
In the 16 days that followed I cooked in my Florence kitchen, using some of the most splendid ingredients bought not only from Baroni's but also small butchers and produce merchants I found at the city's central market. And while I cooked, I fell in love with this Spanish vinegar and its big, complex personality. It added vibrancy to our daily salads and brought to life such dishes as roasted vegetables and sautéed zucchini and mushrooms. Once again, Paola was right.
Years ago when I was a new cook I used to think that it made no difference which vinegar I used and thus I'd buy the cheapest red wine vinegar I could find. But better cooks than I, plus knowing merchants like Paola, have taught me that despite vinegar's aggressive flavor, it can indeed have complexity and nuance. A half-teaspoon sip of Cepa Vieja will teach you that it is distinctive, with a smoky, deep, rich flavor, and that it will improve any recipe that calls for vinegar's unique presence.
Sherry vinegar is made from sherry just as wine or Champagne vinegar is made from those source materials. The better the original ingredient -- the wine or the sherry -- the better the vinegar. The best sherry in the world comes from Spain, from Jerez, which is in the provence of Cadiz. Further, Cepa Vieja, has been recognized with a Denominacion de Origen, the same classification given to Spain's best wines and finest foods like cheese and honey.
This vinegar comes from a 40-year-old mother vinegar, and it's been aged in oak barrels. It has a 7% acidity, which is about average for vinegars made from sherry or wine.
My bottle of Cepa Vieja still was half-filled when it was time to come home from our Florence holiday kitchen -- which was certainly too much and too good to leave behind. So we sealed the stopper into place with a tight wrapping of duct tape that my husband had brilliantly brought along (he uses it as an all-purpose fixer). Cushioned in socks and laundry, the bottle and its remaining contents made it safely home.
Worried that I couldn't buy this precious vinegar in the U.S., I half-heartedly started a search and in a stroke of triumph, found it sold right here in NYC, at Zabar's. It cost about $17 for a 500 ml. bottle. Bklyn Larder, at 228 Flatbush Avenue, sells it for $18.75. You can also buy it from Spanish food importers who sell direct or through Amazon, although the shipping can be as much as the product.