Today I want to talk about balsamic vinegar. It may be a strange topic to some but if you read this post, you may realize that you have never tried the real thing and you may not even know what you are missing.
First thing you need to know is that there is balsamic vinegar form your local supermarket and then there is the REAL thing – aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena (traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena) or aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia (traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio).
The history of balsamics starts in the provinces of Modena and Reggio in Emilia Romagna in Italy almost a thousand years ago. According to The Splendid Table by Lynne Kasper, “for nearly 1,000 years it was so precious that Europe’s royalty tasted it before commoners outside Emilia even knew it existed. Until about 35 years ago, old, artisan made balsamics were never sold, they were shared as gifts to visiting dignitaries and treasured friends and relatives. To this day, well born brides in Modena and Reggio accept nothing less than a tiny cask as their dowry. That cask could well hold a balsamic ages over a century and resounding with such deep, rich flavor that it is reserved for sipping as a liqueur on special occasions.”
How is this precious condiment made? Glad you asked!
According to www.seriouseats.com, traditional balsamic vinegar begins with grape must —whole pressed grapes complete with juice, skin, seeds and stems. The must from sweet white locally grown and late-harvested grapes —usually Lambrusco or Trebbiano varieties— is cooked over a direct flame until concentrated by roughly half, then left to ferment naturally for up to three weeks, and then matured and further concentrated for a minimum of 12 years in a “batteria,” or five or more successively smaller aging barrels. These barrels are made of different types of wood such as oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, and mulberry, so that the vinegar can take on the complex flavors of the casks.
Once a year the vinegar is bottled from the smallest cask in the sequence. Each cask is then topped up with vinegar from the next cask up, with the largest cask getting filled with the new yield. None of the casks are ever completely drained. This ageing process is similar to the solera process used for fine sherries, ports, sweet wines, Spanish brandies and some rums. The vinegar gets thicker and more concentrated as it ages because of evaporation that occurs through the walls of the barrels—the vinegar the smallest barrel will be much thicker and more syrupy than the liquid in the successively larger barrels.
As you can imagine, these aged balsamics are very expensive. They can cost anywhere between $50-100 per small bottle. With very few exceptions, they are not sold at supermarkets in the USA. I have never bought them in the States, so I cannot speak about the quality of those few ones that you can find. However, here are some facts that may hep you select the real thing (courtesy of Serious Eats). Traditional balsamic vinegar is always labelled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale and carries a D.O.P. (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta”) stamp — a European Union certification that guarantees an ingredient’s quality, production, and place of origin. The only ingredient is grape must. Traditional balsamic contains naturally occurring sulphites; none should be added. It is sold in wax-sealed bottles with unique identifying numbers (see the first photo in this post). Traditional balsamic from Modena is only sold in a bulb-shaped 100ml bottle. If it’s from Reggio Emilia it’s only sold in a 100ml bottle shaped like an inverted tulip. If it’s from anywhere else, it’s not traditional balsamic vinegar.
Given the rarity and the price of these balsamics, nobody makes salad dressings with them or cooks with them. They are sipped as liqueurs or drizzled in small quantities over finished dishes. You can sprinkle some on pasta, risotto, grilled meats or fish. Salmon, scallops and lobster are particularly complemented by traditional balsamics. A simple slice of Parmesan is elevated to an appetizer worthy of a good restaurant with a drop of traditional balsamic. Strawberries or ice cream become refined desserts.
One step below the traditional balsamic is a commercial balsamic made in Modena or Reggio (aceto balsamico industriale). If you have ever been to now popular olive oil and vinegar stores in the States, chances are, you have tried the tasty, sweet balsamic they all sell. This is the commercial variety, made with must, wine vinegar, young balsamic vinegar and some caramel (up to 2%). They taste great, are much cheaper than the traditional variety and can be used for cooking, salads, etc.
Yet another step down is what is known as balsamic condiments, balsamic dressings or cooked balsamic must. These can be still made in Modena and Reggio but more often than not they will come from far flung places like Naples. There is nothing wrong with them but they have little in common with the noble traditional balsamic.
Have you ever tried the real traditional balsamic? Did you like it?