Food, wine, travel, music
Balsamic vinegar has been part of the cuisine of many Italian regions for centuries. Matured for decades and traditionally for 12 years, this aged vinegar can be smooth and velvety with a dense sweetness accented with a typical vinegar sourness. As it ages, it evaporates and so reduces and thickens. After about six years it will have evaporated to an acceptable degree, but the 12 year bench mark is ideal. You can find balsamic aged for 20 years, but each year adds more cost. Storage in ideal conditions is costly for them. The most expensive is an amazing product, delicious licked off the spoon, but in these days of budgets what many chefs do and reduce it by boiling with some sugar. This is what they use to streak onto plates for fancy flourishes which taste pretty good. We can do the same with cheaper balsamic bought in supermarkets. It won’t taste the same as the best of the best, but will be quite satisfactory to use as a condiment over boiled new potatoes and mixing with oil for a salad. Some chefs use as much as 50% sugar, but that’s too obviously sweet for me. Try a third of sugar first and see how you like it. While top quality vinegar is expensive, the tiniest drop provides masses of flavour and can prove to be good value. Think of it more as a condiment and add at the end of cooking. If you boil, you spoil. Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is classified as a condiment.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is produced by the fermentation of boiled grape-must, caused by particular types of vinegar bacteria – the ‘vinegar mother’, not unlike a sourdough starter. Trebbiano grapes and grapes local to Modena are used. Before getting to fermentation stage, it is taken from the skins of pressed grapes and kept in open containers so it evaporates slowly as it cooks gently. It turns brown and smells quite sweet. Once cooled it goes into barrels of different sizes (at least three) as it matures. These are made of different wood such as oak, juniper, chestnut, mulberry, cherry. The barrels are usually kept in the eaves of houses so they can enjoy seasonal fluctuations of temperature(no triple insulation here!). Once the cooked must has had its acetic fermentation, it is decanted into the middle-sized barrel to mature. Having evaporated further it is moved into the smallest barrel where is stays for a few years. 20-30 % is lost through evaporation at every step, so it’s easy to see where the high cost of the genuine article comes in. The smallest barrel is topped up from the medium barrel (or at least the barrel nearest its size). This process of topping up is known as ‘travaso’. When the biggest barrel is topped up with new cooked must, the process is called ‘rincalzo’.
There are many families that produce a few bottles just for their own use and take pride in it. There is a designation of origin (DOC) for the Traditional Balsamic of Modena which has to made from the must of grapes produced from vines traditionally cultivated in the province of Modena and cooked directly over a fire. The ageing cannot be for less than 12 years. Acetaia Malpighi, established in the mid 1800s, has been in production for five generations, so watch out for it in food shops.
I recently met Fabio Cavallini in Cork. He lives here now, but his family has been making balsamic vinegar for generations and his sister sells rare bottles for €120. He talks about The Coterie, a non-profit cultural association of balsamic vinegar enthusiasts. I hope to get to their San Giovanni fair some time in Spilamberto where there is a museum dedicated to the vinegar. Having already visited Malpighi it’s easy to get caught up in the detail. Like wine tasting you begin to taste the differences and have to pull yourself back from spending fortunes. When you buy cheaper versions in supermarkets there is no point in keeping it for a few years as once it’s bottled it won’t improve. I tend to keep a few levels of it for different purposes. Cheaper balsamic is better than many wine vinegars for salad dressings. I tend to use balsamic for vegetables that are earthy and need a sweetness rather than sharpness. I wouldn’t waste good quality on hot vegetables. Root vegetables are a perfect example, hot or cold. I add a few drops to the end of stir-fries that need a lift, especially when I have run out of soya sauce. It’s delicious spotted onto vanilla iceream and of course it’s old hat to sprinkle it on strawberries. None the worse for the cliché, though, as the acidity of the vinegar brings out the sweetness of the strawberries. As in the photograph, balsamic on avocado is delicious. It doesn’t need olive oil to dress it further.