Balsamico is the darling of the vinegar world. In North America, balsamic vinegar sprang onto the culinary map at the beginning of the 1980s, and suddenly it was almost as though we ourselves had discovered it. In truth, balsamic vinegar has been produced in Italy since the 11th century, at which time only the nobility and the very wealthy were privileged to enjoy it. Italian dukes use to carry flasks of it to ward off everything from the plague to indigestion.
Actually, the majority of the balsamic vinegar that arrives here from Italy is not what the Italians consider true balsamic vinegar. The real, or traditionally made, balsamic vinegar comes from the cities of Modena and reggio, where strict regulations control the process, right down to the labelling and type of bottle used.
The process of making balsamic starts with the grapes – traditionally Trebbiano grapes, picked late in the season when their sugar content is greatest. The grapes are set out in boxes to dry slightly, concerntrating the juices. The juice is then pressed out, and the must is cooked in large open vats. during this process, the sugars caramelize slightly, creating one of the flavour elements essential to the final product. Next, the syrup is stored in the first of a series of barrels, allowing it to pick up flavours from the wood. Each barrel is a different type of wood, ranging from mulberry to cherry. A minimum of three and a maximum of five barrels might be used. Vinegar must be aged for a minimum of 12 years before it can be submitted to a consortium for evaluation.
If approved, it’s decanted into the appropriate bottles and labelled with either a gold, silver or red seal – gold being the top grade – before being returned to the producer. This long, involved process is why true balsamic vinegar is so expensive.
So what are we buying most of the time when we pick up balsamic vinegar at the grocery store? There are as many grades and qualities out there as there are brands, the lowest being industrial-grade balsamic made from basic vinegar that has sugar and caramel flavour added to it. It’s often harsh and quite nasty. In the top grades, wine must and aged wine vinegar are blended to produce a lovely balsamic condiment perfect for salad dressings, sauces and marinades. So buyer, beware: you usually get what you pay for when it comes to balsamic. Look for a rich, deep amber colour with some viscosity and a flavour that’s sweet and tart, with woodsy cherry characteristics.
Try sprinkling balsamic vinegar over roasted new potatoes as a substitute for butter. or simmer the vinegar until it’s reduced to half the volume (this will give it more body and intensify the flavour) and drizzle it over grilled vegetables or meat. You can also stir it into tomato sauce to add some punch. For a real twist, mix it with honey to serve with berries and ice cream.