What Is The “Real” Balsamic Vinegar?
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Few foods have enjoyed the widespread fame of balsamic vinegar, not only as a condiment, but as a form of medicine, since the turn of the second millennium. This luxurious liquid has been produced in and around the city of Modena in Emilia-Romagna since the year 1000, and myths and legends have long attested to its medicinal properties. In 1046, a Benedictine monk pronounced balsamic vinegar beneficial; Lucrezia Borgia sipped it to fight childbirth pains; Francesco IV, Duke of Modena, used it to soothe his ulcer; and composer Gioacchino Rossini drank it to calm his nerves.
Tradizionale and Condimento balsamics are made in Modena and Reggio-Emilia using artisan methods established in the Renaissance and dating back to the Middle Ages. Balsamic vinegar is one of Emilia Romagna’s oldest and proudest products. To make this vinegar, the must (grape juice before fermentation) of Trebbiano and other grapes grown in the Emilian countryside is slowly cooked over an open fire and reduced to as little as one-third of its original volume (the exact amount of reduction depends on the vintage, the sugar content of the grapes, and the producer’s preference). The cooked must is filtered and poured into oak barrels, where it matures over the winter. In the spring, the aging process begins, and lasts a minimum of 12 years: the vinegar is poured into smaller casks made of different kinds of wood (oak, chestnut, cherry, ash, and mulberry), each of which imparts a particular aroma and color to the final product.
The barrels, held in an attic environment where the sun’s rays are allowed to filter in and play their part in the vinegar’s evolution, are topped with vinegar from the next larger barrel so that they are always two-thirds full. It takes 770 pounds of grapes to produce 15 quarts of vinegar, which explains the high cost of genuine balsamic vinegar.
The longer the balsamic vinegar ages, the more complex, and expensive, it becomes: 2 months of aging in wooden barrels is the minimum required by the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena (known as CABM), but a special version is aged 3 years or longer to yield a rich, deep vinegar with a fuller body and a sweeter, mellower flavor with hints of wood. Even better than Aceto Balsamico di Modena is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, which is aged a minimum of 12 years and up to 25 years or longer… even 100 years is not unheard of! One word–Tradizionale–makes all the difference, and means that the vinegar was aged longer than other balsamic vinegars.
Authentic balsamic vinegar, not the typical commercial product, is more of a glaze than a vinegar; rich, thick, sweet, and aromatic, its acidity is perfectly balanced by its sweetness. To ensure that consumers are able to differentiate between authentic balsamic vinegar from Modena and lesser imitation vinegars, the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena has created a special seal that can only be placed around bottles that pass their stringent tests. If a bottle of vinegar is wearing the CAMB seal, the vinegar is guaranteed to have been made from indigenous grape varietals and produced and bottled in its area of origin, in or around Modena.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is markedly different from other wine vinegars, whose pronounced acidity and pungent taste can oftentimes be jolting. Its deeper, mellower flavor makes it an ideal choice for much more than just dressing salads. Try a drop of it in pan sauces for meat or fish, where it lends a pleasant yet subdued note of acidity. Rather delicate, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is best suited to subtle preparations: sprinkled over steamed vegetables or a platter of thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma, drizzled on fresh field strawberries and vanilla-bean gelato, or whisked into warm zabaglione.
Which Balsamic Vinegar Should I Buy?
Choosing a good imported balsamic vinegar is like buying a fine wine: You need to sample several until you find one you love. Although all varieties have a 6 percent acidity level, they vary in flavor depending on the proportion of cooked-down crushed grape to wine vinegar, the type and size of wooden casks they were aged in, and the length of time they were aged. Better varieties are aged for at least three years in wooden barrels, which produces an intense, woody flavor.
In an effort to boost sales, some companies may make false aging claims on their labels; others don’t follow production specifications governed by Italian law (the United States doesn’t oversee label claims on imported balsamic vinegar). But there is one way to know you’re purchasing a quality product: Look for a seal from the Consortium for the Protection of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (CABM). A burgundy-colored seal (you’ll find it on the neck band of the bottle) guarantees product authenticity and indicates an aging period of less than three years, making these vinegars a good choice for salad dressings and pan sauces. The gold and white “Invecchiato” (aged) CABM seal guarantees that the product has been aged more than three years in a wooden cask, creating a more delicate (and more expensive) vinegar suitable for drizzling over vegetables, fruit, and prosciutto.
True aceto balsamic vinegar comes in 3.4 ounce bottles and sells from $50.00 to $500.00 per bottle. It must be aged a minimum of 10 years. The better balsamic vinegars are aged 25 to 50 years (these are not to be poured, but used by the drop). Dark in color and syrup in consistency, they have a flavor that is a balance of sweet and sour. Tradizionale has a mellow acidity and a sharp aroma.
Balsamic Vinegar, due to its acidity level, has a very long shelf life. Unopened, Balsamic vinegar can be stored indefinitely. Once opened, you want to store it in a cool dark place. After several years, the opened bottle may start to mellow in taste, but it will not go “bad.”