Charlotte Mason’s 1778 Recipe for ‘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 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.

8 comments

  1. making vinegar is a slow process.. you must wait for alcohol to produce a mother/ scoby and then wait for the scoby to do it’s thing, Maybe it was a way of fast tracking it where for the unorganised or unprepared, or for houses that didn’t use vinegar very often ( hard to imagine nowadays), to make it on demand.

    I’m attempting to make vinegar at home.. I’m trying 3 things. One I have a kombucha scoby in a mixture of half (organic, no preservatives or sulphur) wine and a little sugar, half unpasteurised Apple cider vinegar. The second is plain apple cider vinegar and wine. The third I read online, where some french wine maker recommended that you put a hot glowing coal in an oak barrel of wine and you’ll have vinegar in a week or two. Well I didn’t have an oak barrel so my hot coal went into about a litre in a glass jar so proportions just a wee tad off, assuming this may be a relevant factor. If I manage to make a scoby then I’ll ferment fruit into alcohol and try to make some delicious vinegars. Last time I tried to make I bought a scoby and it didn’t bloody work. I’ll let you know if i have success.

    1. Hi Amanda – Well, as I read it, you’re meant to already have a supply of white wine vinegar to mix with your powdered brambles, which you then have to make into balls, then dry them… which seems like a lot of effort to go to just to make something you then turn into vinegar again later on. But I guess they were more portable than bottles of actual vinegar?

      I wish you great luck with your own vinegar-making efforts. I’d love to hear how it turns out.

  2. If you look at historical bread culture, it’s amazing how more nomadic people would carry this starter culture around with them, in low temperatures where the yeasts in it could barely survive and so they would carry close to their body to keep it warm so they could coax a bread out of it for sustenance. maybe vinegar was like that as you suggest above. If I make more than one scoby I’m going to get the suckers under a microscope and see what I can discern

    1. Great idea. Or maybe the nomadic people carried their scoby starters in pots next to the fire pots that they carried last night’s embers around in to make tonight’s fire..? I’m sure I read that somewhere, but perhaps it was in a fantasy novel. Anyhow, as you say, a bit of body-heat, from person or horse, or cow, ought to have done the trick.

  3. and of course acids can denature animal flesh.. as you said long sea voyages etc, if no fire for cooking.

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