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Umeboshi in Italy

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I had to go all the way to Italy to learn about umeboshi vinegar.

It’s strange: umeboshi are Japanese pickled plums, I’d been to Japan many times as a child. I knew umeboshi, I loved umeboshi, but I’d never heard of umeboshi vinegar. And technically, it isn’t a vinegar at all—it’s the brining liquid left over from making umeboshi, thick with the salt and sour and shiso flavor of the pickled plums.

It wasn’t until I was twenty years old, studying in Europe and visiting friends in Italy that I heard about umeboshi vinegar. That’s what we ate on our salads. The greens were dressed in garlic and olive oil that our friends pressed from their own trees. The bowl was passed around the table. Roberto, the husband, ate his salad this way, but Tina, his wife, sprinkled on a few drops of a dark magenta liquid. It was umeboshi vinegar, she told me. I should try it.

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One taste of this liquid and I was in love. Here was all the sour and salty flavor I love from umeboshi, in liquid form, concentrated. I ate a full plate of salad, then I went back for more. It was amazing.

Tina told me she had bought the vinegar in Florence, in an ancient pharmacy, and gave me the address. Later, on my own, I somehow found the store. It was in the basement and I walked down old stone steps, wondering about the generations of Florentines who might have walked them before me.

The pharmacy felt like it was in a cave, chiseled out of stone. I’m sure it was lit with electric lights, but they flickered on the carved walls and cast shadows. I found a jug of the umeboshi vinegar and purchased it with foreign and unfamiliar coins. I spirited it back to my apartment in Vienna, bought myself a garlic press, and that spring I ate my fill of salads until the bottle ran dry.

This all came back to me recently, when I found a bottle of umeboshi vinegar while clearing out the kitchen cupboard in my apartment in San Francisco. There, shoved back in a corner, was a small bottle I’d forgotten about. It made me wonder if I’d still like the salads we ate in Italy. Would I be as fixated on them as I once had been?

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Lucky for me, I had nearly a pound of mixed lettuces, leftover from the salad my brother had made for our Easter celebration. I don’t normally buy mixed lettuces in a carton like this, but I’d taken the leftovers home with me, figuring I’d use them up somehow. A little olive oil and garlic later, I was sprinkling on my umeboshi vinegar and, with some trepidation, tasting a bite.

Twenty minutes later—after I had eaten the entire pound of lettuce—I had my answer. Yes, I still love umeboshi vinegar. I love it so much, I went out and bought more lettuce, which I promptly ate. I don’t know what it is (the salty-sour umami flavor, perhaps), but something about umeboshi vinegar turns me into a willing rabbit. Bring on the greens, bring on the leaves, as long as I have my vinegar, I will take them all.

Then I’ll ask for more.

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I may have had to go to Italy to find it, but I’m not forgetting about umeboshi vinegar again any time soon. Anything that can persuade me to consume that quantity of greens, is a very good thing. The fact that it’s reappeared in my life just as we are about to go into the season of sundresses and swimsuits, I dare say is even better.

Welcome back, umeboshi vinegar, I’ve missed you.

UMEBOSHI-ITALY SALAD

Makes one serving; I can easily eat double this amount, but I’m addicted

I can’t promise that you’ll like this salad as much as I do. Palates are personal things. Mine likes salty and sour flavors, vinegar and pickles. Yours might be different. But if you like salty and sour too, you might want to give this a try. I find it addictive.

These are loose amounts here. If you really like garlic, you could probably get away with more. Add more of what you like, adjust levels to your preference. This is what I do:

2 tsp olive oil

½ tsp garlic (2 medium cloves, crushed)

1-2 tsp umeboshi vinegar

2 ½ cup salad greens

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the olive oil and crushed garlic (I like to use a garlic press, you might prefer chopping). Toss the salad greens in the bowl until they are coated. Drizzle in the vinegar, one teaspoon at a time, tasting after the first teaspoon. This vinegar is very salty. You might prefer to stop at one teaspoon, you might like a stronger flavor and go for two. Please your own palate here.

Toss and eat.

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