Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews
A superb, little-known specialty from the South of France
If you don’t yet know about Banyuls vinegar, let me introduce you. It’s one of my longtime favorites. While Balsamic continues to dominate headlines and sales statistics, Banyuls, I believe, is one of the most underrated vinegars we’ve got. Much less sweet than Balsamic, and subtler than sherry vinegar. Unique to the coastal region of southwest France—the only place in the world it’s made—it’s darned delicious.
Banyuls is made in the town of the same name, in the foothills of the Pyrenées in southwestern France—Catalan country, along the Mediterranean Sea coast, to the north of the Spanish border. Rarely seen outside its homeland until recent years, the vinegar is made from Banyuls wine, the famous fortified wine of the area. Production is small, only about 10,000 bottles a year. The grapes—50% Grenache Noir, 40% Grenache Gris, 10% Carignan—grow on very old vines, which fight to survive on the region’s rocky soil and steep hillsides. The wine itself starts with a year in oak barrels in stone cellars. It’s then moved outside into even larger barrels where it sits in the open air and sun for four years. In the fifth year a good dose of old Banyuls vinegar is added to the wine to enhance the conversion. The vinegar is then returned to the cellars for a final six months aging, all of which add up to about six years in total.
Banyuls has one of the smoothest flavors I’ve ever tasted in a vinegar. Subtly sweet, softly spicy, a touch of almond, almost a whisper of dark chocolate, a hint of aged sherry. If it helps sway you, this special Banyuls is the house vinegar at the superb Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. I love it in a salad with torn pieces of Farm bread or Paesano, along with good olive oil and toasted almonds. Great too with blue cheese and walnuts. Michael Harlan Turkell’s great book, Acid Trip, has a nice recipe for a Banyuls vinaigrette made with blackberries. Try this easy recipe for spinach salad with sweet potatoes, blue cheese and red walnuts. The region around Banyuls is also anchovy country, and the vinegar pairs really well with little cured fish (try the Ortiz offerings)—I’ve done small plates of good anchovies, drizzled generously with the Banyuls vinegar and left to sit for a few minutes to let the fish absorb the vinegar a bit. Grind on some good black pepper and eat ’em up! Bottom line? It’s super easy to use, terrific to eat. Top notch. Magical. A vinegar lover’s vinegar.