Friday, August 12, 2005

Aceto Balsamico di Modena

10-Year-Old Balsamic Vinegar from Trader Joe's

“This one is bright and quite sharp, with a definite acidic hit in the back of the mouth,” said Blondielocks. “I will sprinkle it on roasted vegetables and stir-fries and make some tasty marinades, maybe some sweet-and-sour sauces with it.” And Mama Bear agreed.

“Oh, this one is richer, with a sweeter finish,” Blondielocks purred. “It will be perfect for my salad dressings and to deglaze the pan with dark, woodsy juices after searing some lovely, tender meat.” And Papa Bear concurred.

“Oh my, oh my!” Blondielocks crooned. “This one is so thick, dark, full-bodied and sweet that I may have to sip it straight from the bottle! And there is only sweetness, no sharpness at all.” And Baby Bear knew that THIS was the one for him as well. “Hooray, hooray,” he cheered, “let’s put a few, thick drops on ice cream, melon, Parma ham, figs, strawberries and such!”

Blondielocks and the three bears (apologies to Goldilocks, but the usual porridge story just wouldn't do, for THIS table fable!) couldn’t have been more correct and in tune with current tastes. Balsamic vinegars are being tasted and enjoyed far-and-wide today. Just last week, the Ingredient Sleuth was browsing at one of the larger Williams-Sonoma ( cookware stores and discovered a tasting bar that offered free samples of a variety of balsamic vinegars (and olive oils too!). There were even bread cubes available to cleanse the palate between tastes! How delightful!

Traditionally, balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) has been made only in and near the small, medieval city of Modena in the northern part of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. Trebbiano grapes (and sometimes Lambrusco grapes), which are local to the area, are soft-pressed to produce “must” that is filtered, left to stand and then cooked in large pans over open wood fires.

Kept at a simmer for up to twelve hours, the grape sugars begin to caramelize, creating a rich, brown syrup. The syrup is then placed in wooden barrels to begin its aging process. Different woods are used and impart different colors and flavors to the juice; oak, juniper, ash, mulberry and cherry are commonly used.

Every wooden barrel has a small, gauze-covered trap that permits controlled evaporation of the must’s liquid juices. As the liquid inside the barrel reduces, flavors and colors intensify. After about one year, the must is transferred to a smaller barrel and may be mixed with fermenting musts from other, older “batches” of grapes. Unique flavor profiles are obtained by combining batches from earlier harvests. This combination of multiple years’ juices precludes the “dating” of balsamic vinegars, as of a certain year's grape harvest, in the way that wine vintages are dated.

The process of removal of the fermenting must to smaller and smaller barrels (sometimes of different woods), and the combining with different batches, is repeated year after year. As time passes, the vinegar becomes thicker and heavier.

To obtain the status of “tradizionale” and be certified as meeting the requirements of the Modena consortium governing balsamic vinegar, the aging must complete at least twelve years. Given the inability to date the vinegar as a certain year’s vintage, this consortium-controlled rating allows the purchaser to be ensured that the youngest must contained within the vinegar will be at least twelve years old.

Tradizionale at 12 years of age, and extra vecchio which may be as much as 25 or 50 years old, are the ultimate in balsamic vinegars. Rich and silky (and expensive), the thickest of them coating a spoon like honey, they are not an everyday condiment but are used sparingly, sometimes dispensed drop-by-drop.

For hundreds of years in Italy, and as recently as the mid 1900s, balsamic vinegar was produced in rural homes around Modena, each family storing enough for its own use in the attic (the Modena climate producing just the right temperatures in the attic to enhance the fermentation). Often, the precious vinegar was part of a bride’s marriage-dowry. One begins to wonder if pre-engagement balsamic tastings were part of the courtship process!

It was only in the 1980s that balsamic vinegar became a fashionable ingredient worldwide. The demand for it continues to grow. Recently, another area of the Emilia Romagna region has begun to produce its own balsamic vinegar, thereby creating the inevitable food-angst between Italian towns (an Italian “food fight,” as it were). Reggio, the balsamico newcomer to the west of Modena, offers its vinegar under the term aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. In response, Modena’s producers are now fighting to receive Protected Geographic Indication (IGP, as it is termed in Italy) from the government for the process.

Although few of us will have the opportunity to taste such rarity on a regular basis, the attention garnered by this top-of-the-line version of balsamic vinegar seems to be raising the profile (and quality) of the “lesser” versions as well. Termed aceto balsamico di Modena (without the tradizionale or extra vecchio designations), they are made in much the same manner, but the barrels are larger, wine vinegar is added before the fermentation and the aging process is shorter, with no transfer from one barrel to another. Cheaper balsamics are matured for up to 12 months, mid-priced versions for up to 18 months and higher-end varieties for up to four years.

Increasingly, nicely-aged vinegars are showing up at quite-reasonable prices. The vinegar in the accompanying photo, in fact, is routinely available at Trader Joe’s stores. It is from Modena, Italy and has been aged for 10 years. For the Ingredient Sleuth’s money (and you know how carefully she shops!), this vinegar is delicious in a great breadth of dishes and works very nicely in the higher-end scenarios as well.

The word "balsamic" itself, used to describe this vinegar, is a derivation of a word meaning "balm" and "restorative." Over the centuries, balsamic vinegar has been viewed as an aid to digestion as an enhancer of appetite. (Whose eating experience WOULDN'T be improved when it just tastes so good?)

So, if the ideas in Blondielocks’ techniques with balsamic vinegar appeal to you – or better yet, if they strike you as something strange from another world – the sleuth encourages you to give them a try. There are brave new worlds of tasting to be attempted and savored. Already, Blondielocks and the three bears are on-board!

Bon appetit!


bill and karen said...

We buy this balsamic vinegar at Trader Joes all the time and it is one of our must-have ingredients. The pricing is good, as you said, and since we found it we have stopped buying prepared salad dressings. Instead we just sprinkle some of this vinegar and some good olive oil straight onto our salads and add salt & pepper. It's delicious.

eric said...

Balsamic vinegar on strawberries is out of this world delicious. I had it for the first time in Rome and fell for the great complex taste. Great ideas from Chef Blondilocks!

Doug said...

We use this stuff for a multitude of sins. The most recent is a crostini made with fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, and mint, tomatoes, onions, garlic and of course, aceto balsamico!

Another successful but unexpected use was on sliced starfruit...yum!

Maryanne said...

I like this 3 bears story MUCH better than the original. It's less scary and MUCH more useful!!! I'll try some of those ideas and thanks for another great article.

Anonymous said...

Berries & balsamic is superb. Thanks for the reminder.

Pat R said...

Balsamic really is a good condiment for lots of things. I had it on strawberries for the first time in Florence on my first trip to Italy. I was entranced! There, they also added just a slight touch of freshly ground black pepper. Bellissima!

Anonymous said...

We like to put a tiny bit of balsamic on grilled salmon when we take it off the grill. Just the right touch to highlight the flavor. That salmon along with grilled corn is one of our favorite summer meals.

Katie said...

We make an imitation cocktail out of balsamic vinegar:

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Splash of bitters

Pour over ice cubes in glass. Then fill with sparkling water.
Add a cherry or a lemon twist, if you like.

This is really good for summertime afternoons when alcohol just makes you feel hotter.

Katie said...


Oh my, excuse me ... I mean to say 1 TEASPOON of blasamic vinegar in the imitation cocktail (NOT 1 tablespoon)!!!!