Charlotte Mason, on Making ‘Vinegar Balls’

"Take bramble-berries when half ripe, dry them, and then beat them to powder ; make it up into balls with strong white wine vinegar, as big as nuts ; dry them very dry, and keep them in Boxes ; when it is wanted take some wine, or a little stale beer, dissolve a ball in it, and it will become strong vinegar. Green bramble-berries put into good wine will make vinegar in an hour."

Charlotte Mason, The Ladies’ Assistant for Regulating and Supplying the Table, 4th edition (1778)

The passage above seems to me to be an insight into a completely different world-view to ours. The idea that someone might have the time, never mind the inclination, to go to the effort of picking and drying half-ripe blackberries, then drying them, then powdering them, then mixing them with vinegar and making them up into nut-sized balls, then drying them again, all so you can carry around a packet of bramble-vinegar balls? Which you then need to mix with wine or stale (aged) beer in order to make… more vinegar?

What could be the use or reason for all that effort? Was bramble-vinegar considered the pinnacle of the vinegar oeuvre, from a gourmand’s point-of-view? Was it to could ensure a supply of good vinegar when you were travelling? And if so, was the vinegar on offer at wayside inns and taverns of such poor quality that you were better off bringing your own? I’ve heard tales of gentlemen carrying around their own preferred blend of mustard powders to make up into paste when dining, so was this the vinegar equivalent? Or was it perhaps intended for use on on much longer voyages, by sea? Is this recipe one for the intrepid sea-captain, who would need a drop of good vinegar to liven the hard-tack and salt-cod of a trans-Atlantic crossing? So many questions, so many potential answers.

Anyhow, here’s a question that I suspect I already know the answer to… how about you? Have you ever made your own bramble vinegar balls? Do you feel inspired to give them a go? What am I saying? Of course you don’t. But if you’d like to suggest a possible reason for making vinegar balls – or, even better, if you’re aware of any source material that explains the reasoning behind them – then please do feel free to do so, via the comments.

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