The city of Orléans, France – the sister city of New Orleans, Louisiana – is known historically for its university, Gothic-style Cathedral Sainte-Croix, and the heroic exploits of Joan of Arc.
So how and why did Orléans also become France’s capital of vinegar-making? It all started with a river and the French Kings’ love of wine:
If you’re familiar with French history, you know that the Kings of France loved to build castles for themselves in the Loire Valley. As a result, they had the opportunity to taste the delicious wines from the surrounding regions of Angers and Touraine. So it followed that they wanted these wines shipped to Paris to have when they returned there.
Why vinegar in Orléans?
River transport accelerated and trade of wine developed during the Middle Ages in France. The city of Orléans created a port on its section of the Loire River to accommodate this influx of trade activity.
In order to ship Loire valley and Burgundy wines to Paris, the merchandise was placed in casks and transported by boat on the Loire river to Orleans.
Once there it was unloaded and inspected there by “Piqueurs-Jureurs”.
These inspectors tested the wines and evaluated whether their quality had survived the journey thus far. If so, they would be loaded onto carts and continue on the route to Paris by road.
However, if some of these fine wines had turned and become bitter, they were left in Orléans and sold to vinegar and mustard-makers.
Orléans already used its local wine to make vinegar. Archival records indicate that there were vineyards growing right up to the city’s walls. At the time, wines in this region were light, slightly acidic and essentially white.
Due to this advantageous position at the river-to-road junction on the route to Paris, Orleans became adept at – and known for – creating high-quality vinegar.
From the Middle Ages until the beginning of the 20th century, 50 to 80% of French vinegar was produced in Orleans.
Vinegar was in high demand in France: along with salt, it was the only product available at that time to preserve food.
However, it was produced using low-quality wines. What separated the city of Orléans from other vinegar producers was the use of higher quality wines as the base for their vinegar production.
But production methods at the time were very empirical and poorly controlled.
Orléans and King Henri III of France:
The talent of the Orléans artisan and the quality of wines he used to create vinegar lead to recognition on a national scale. So in 1580, the King of France, Henri III, created by letters patent one of the first associations, the “Confrérie des Vinaigriers et Moutardiers d’Orléans.” This guild made the vinegar, set its prices, and trained apprentices – all while keeping the production processes a secret.
The King’s intent was to codify the foundations of the Orléans production method for vinegar and thereby creating for France a product that was healthy, consistent in quality and commercially viable.
This established the production technique of the vinegar makers as the “Orléans Method.”
Louis Pasteur, Vinegar & Orléans:
After researching lactic and alcohol fermentation, Pasteur studied the formation of vinegar. He analyzed the conversion of alcohol into acetic acid by Mycoderma Aceti.
Part of his research was conducted with the help of vinegar-makers in Orléans. He also concluded that the slow surface fermentation process of the “Orléans Method” of vinegar production was superior to others.
The Orléans Method: What is it?
In the 19th century, technical innovations were introduced in France that sped up the process of vinegar production. However, these inventions robbed the final product of its quality and finesse.
Vinegar makers in Orléans, however, didn’t adopt the newfound production techniques but instead adhered to their slow-method know-how.
The first step in the Orléans Method is the diligent selection of the base product: the qualities of a particular red wine will be analyzed and the qualities of white wine will be analyzed based on their potential to produce good red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar.
Oak barrels laid length-wise are filled with wine and vinegar and fermentation is carried out slowly by the acetic acid bacteria. This bacteria generally metabolize all the alcohol in a 9 % ethanol wine in 1 to 3 months.
When fully acidified, the vinegar is racked off leaving a modest amount inside a 225 L barrel, which is then filled up halfway with fresh wine. Each additional batch mixes in with the vinegar from the preceding production cycle. This is how the acetification process starts.
To make sure the bacteria have enough oxygen available, holes are drilled through the ends of the barrel and covered with muslin to protect against any outside intruders, like insects. Filling the barrel only halfway allows for the maximum surface area to be exposed to air.
In the Orléans Method, the mother of vinegar is left in the barrel for the next batch of wine. Louis Pasteur remarked in his observations that the vinegar “mother” must not be broken up when adding additional wine or the pieces will sink to the bottom of the barrel. The acetic acid bacteria contained in the mother will then be deprived of oxygen, die, rot, and ruin the vinegar.
So the fresh wine must be poured into the barrel very slowly and the vinegar produced racked off very carefully. This is achieved traditionally by using a funnel and glass pipe with a U curve at the end. (see image below)
This funnel allows the vinegar maker to pour directly into the lower portion of the barrel, leaving the floating ‘mother” at the top and the residue at the bottom of the barrel undisturbed.
The Orléans Method consists of a natural surface fermentation. 3 weeks are required for the natural fermentation process to run its course.
After this, part of the liquid is removed or racked off and aged for one year in a cellar at 15° C. The vinegar is then filtered and bottled for sale.
The transcendence of the Orléans Method of vinegar production has been recognized as being the most natural, slow and delicate of the vinegar-making methods. It yields a high-quality vinegar that retains the subtleties of the wines used as its base.
Orléans vinegar was awarded the 1st Prize in the 1900 Universal Exposition.
Orléans, France and Vinegar Production Today:
The 18th century was the height of vinegar production for the city. Around 300 artisan vinegar makers were active during this period. The demand was so strong that 80% of French vinegar production came from Orléans at that time.
However, the city’s domination waned in the 19th century as faster methods of production were introduced. These modern production techniques reduced the number of vinegar makers to only 100 artisans.
By the mid-20th century (around 1950), only 7 artisans were active.
Today the 6th generation of the Martin-Pouret family represents the sole artisanal firm remaining in the production of vinegar using the Orléans Method.
In the Fall of 2019, the Martin-Pouret company, founded and run by the same family since 1797, has been sold to 2 of its former employees.
Fortunately, the new owners have the intention of maintaining the traditional Orléans production method.
And now you: Have you ever tried vinegar made using the “Orléans Method” or from the Martin-Pouret company? Leave a comment and let me know!
(images courtesy of Unsplash.com and Nordic Food Lab)