What is Four Thieves Vinegar, and Why the Name?
Four Thieves Vinegar (also popularly called Marseilles Vinegar/Remedy, Prophylactic Vinegar, Vinegar of the Four Thieves, etc.) is a concoction of vinegar (either red wine, white wine, cider, or distilled white- preferably raw) infused with herbs, spices and garlic for a number of days that was believed to protect users from the plague. The recipe for this vinegar has almost as many variations as its legend.
The usual story declares that a group of thieves during a European plague outbreak were robbing the dead or the sick. When they were caught, they offered to exchange their secret recipe, which had allowed them to commit the robberies without catching the disease, in exchange for leniency. Another version says that the thieves had already been caught before the outbreak and their sentence had been to bury dead plague victims; to survive this punishment, they created the vinegar. The city in which this happened is usually said to be Marseille or Toulouse, anywhere between the 14th and 18th century- depending on the storyteller.
The following vinegar recipe hung in the Museum of Paris in 1937, and is said to have been an original copy of the recipe posted on the walls of Marseilles during an episode of the plague:
Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of camphor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express then bottle. Use by rubbing it on the hands, ears and temples from time to time when approaching a plague victim.
Modern day versions of Four Thieves Vinegar include various herbs that typically include sage, lavender, thyme, and rosemary, along with garlic. Additional herbs sometimes include rue, mint, and wormwood. It has become traditional to use four herbs in the recipe—one for each thief, though earlier recipes often have a dozen herbs or more. NOTE: Sage Contraindications – if you are currently taking diabetes, anticonvulsant or sedative medications.
Many herbalists appreciate this vibrant concoction for its strong antiviral and antibacterial properties. Used often as a natural cleaning agent, it can also be used internally as tincture for various illnesses and boosting the immune system. Others recommend using this vinegar in personal care- diluted with water of course- It is known to balance PH levels, as a skin toner/astringent, good for tendons and ligaments, nail fungus and repels fleas. The same applies to your pets- in which dilution is still necessary.
This beautiful combination of herbs displays a vibrantly herbaceous and slightly floral note that may or may not protect your family from the rigours of medieval plagues, but will definitely enliven plates of freshly picked salad greens, edible flowers, sweet lettuces and other summer greens. Simply mix with a good quality olive oil in a simple vinaigrette for a delightful salad. It also makes an excellent seasoning for braised meats and vegetables.
With many recipes for Four Thieves Vinegar abound, there’s no telling now which recipe is most accurate- though a recipe written by Jean Valnet, a renowned aromatherapist and herbalist of the early 20th century, may resemble the original more closely than any other.
Four Thieves’ vinegar traditional recipe
Yield: 1 quart
Prep: about 05 min
Cook: about 7 to 10 days (resting) min
■ 2 tbsp chopped fresh lavender flowers
■ 2 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
■ 2 tbsp chopped fresh mint
■ 2 tbsp chopped fresh sage
■ 2 tbsp chopped fresh marjoram
■ 2 tbsp chopped fresh anise hyssop
■ 4 cloves garlic (peeled and crushed)
■ 1 quart white wine or apple cider vinegar (preferably raw)
- Toss herbs and garlic together in a one-quart mason jar, cover with vinegar and allow them to marinate for seven to ten days in a sunny location. After seven to ten days, strain the vinegar through a fine-mesh sieve into a second, clean 1-quart glass jar.
- Store at room temperature until ready to use and enjoy! For consumption, serve as you would any seasoned vinegar: as a base for vinaigrettes; seasoning for braised meats and vegetables.