A pilgrimage for vinegar might sound like something for only the truly food-obsessed. But photographer Michael Harlan Turkell, who spent a year traveling around the world researching vinegars for his forthcoming book, Acid Trip, shows us all how a taste of vinegar can reveal a place as well as a sip of fine wine.
“In 2002, when I was photographing No. 9 Park in Boston, the head chef, Barbara Lynch, gave me a quarter bottle of sipping vinegar and said, ‘This is the best stuff you’re ever going to have. Don’t fuck it up.’ I took that bottle home and took a sip—I had never experienced such craft and balance. Most vinegar in the United States hits you hard in the chest with acetone, but this was so nuanced. It was like a first kiss: shocking at first, almost awkward, but then life-changing. It was bright, vivid, and full of flavor, not just all acid like some supermarket vinegar. The incident was also the first time I heard of Erwin Gegenbauer, probably the best vinegar maker in the world.
“That sip was one of the first things that got me into vinegar. Once I started in that world, I knew I had to meet Gegenbauer. In 2015, I got to spend a day and a half with him in his vinegar cellar in Vienna. He’s a wild man. He makes his own beer, his own bread, his own flour, his own butter. Gegenbauer makes his vinegars in caves, because he can control the temperature—it’s the same with wine—and stores them in glass demijohn bottles or barrels. It’s a rainbow of colors down there. He makes hundreds of different kinds, including vinegars from the wines of the region, like trockenbeerenauslese. But, to me, the vinegars he makes from quince and stone fruit and asparagus and cucumber and all these other fruits and vegetables are especially interesting.
“Most people think of vinegar as something you’d use for a vinaigrette or as a pickling agent, but Gegenbauer coaxes such flavors and aromatics out of his that you can just spritz a little on your salad—without any oil at all—and it’s stunning. Some are even made just for sipping.
“Anyone can go and visit Gegenbauer’s shop, which is in his house, and taste through dozens of vinegars (make an appointment first). He also has a stand at the Naschmarkt, the mile-long market in the middle of Vienna. People should try vinegar-focused agrotourism: Just like you can visit vineyards, you can go see the fields where the fruits and vegetables for vinegars are grown, and visit the places where they’re produced. There’s such terroir. I know that term is overused now, but great vinegar is made with great ingredients. It isn’t crappy, mass-produced, pasteurized BS that happens in a factory.” —as told to Aislyn Greene