In this day of wicked excess no self-respecting gourmand would be caught without a bottle - several bottles - of exotic vinegar from faraway lands, resplendent in chic bottles, some actually costing as much as vintage wines.

Well, let's hear it for the humble home-brewed stuff, the kind that one might gather slowly and lovingly in a pantry. An old fashioned concept? You bet! Consider what Lydia Maria Child advised in The American Housewife back in 1828, "It is poor economy to buy vinegar by the gallon. Buy a barrel, or half a barrel, of really strong vinegar, when you begin house-keeping. As you use it, fill the barrel with old cider, sour beer, or wine-settlings." Although today's home kitchen would be hard-put to store a barrel of vinegar, one gets a sense of well being when caring for a small wooden keg, crock, or jar of the family's private vinegar stock in the kitchen. After all, housed in the crock is "the mother," a congealed bacteria that converts the wine or cider into a fine vinegar. And as unattractive as this gelatinous mass might be, she continues to produce the family vinegar as the caregiver nurtures her with unpasteurized wine.

The word vinegar, derived from the French vin aigre, means "sour wine" and is defined as a fermented liquid such as wine, beer, or cider that has, through bacterial action, been converted into a diluted solution of acetic acid. The percentages of acetic acid commonly found in vinegars in this country runs from four to six or seven percent. Many who find a vinegar too mouth puckering, add a touch of water. In fact, there was a time when vinegar combined with water was the Chateau Lafitte of the Roman soldier because a small amount of vinegar went further than the wine from which it came. With the advent of nouvelle cuisine, vinegars of all types and flavors became popular as a no-fat ingredient that rendered intense flavor to what might otherwise be a boring taste experience. If added at the beginning of cooking time, good vinegar loses its pungency and imparts a rich color and flavor. If used to deglaze a sauté pan at the end of the cooking time, vinegar becomes an intensely flavored tart syrupy sauce to serve over fish, a chop, hamburger, or calves liver. Flavored wine vinegars are particularly appropriate to use as deglazing liquids.

Making one's own vinegar has become a popular hobby among cooking enthusiasts. Glass or stainless steel containers are strongly recommended for making a home brew. Vinegar chemically reacts to aluminum and many plastics. A "mother" for making cider, white or red wine, or malt vinegar, including directions for making vinegar, can be purchased on line or by mail from a company in Hendersonville, NC called Assembly Required at [email protected]. An informational source for vinegar hobbyists is the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, South Dakota at Vinegarman also gives directions for making your own "mother."