Much More than a Vinegar
By Julie Coen
Most people know that making good wine is a long and complicated process. What most people don't know is that creating balsamic vinegar can be just as challenging.
And again, while most people know France is the birthplace of wine, most people don't know that northern Italy is the Mecca for creating the vinegar known to cure ailments in medieval times.
|Balsamic vinegar "spices" up your meals when you're in Italy!|
Today, the cities of Reggio-Emilia and especially Modena reign over all others in creating the finest balsamic vinegar.
The juice of the white Trebbiano grape is primarily used and in its unfermented form is known as the "must." After harvesting, the grape is crushed and the liquid sits until the first signs of fermentation. It is then filtered and boiled in copper pots over an open flame until it is reduced.
At this point the "mother" is often added. This is a stringy, slimy substance that forms on the surface of the vinegar, composed of various yeast and bacteria that cause fermentation in grape-based beverages. The "mother' turns the juice into acetic acid (vinegar).
The family's attic was an ideal aging location for traditional balsamic vinegar because of the extreme fluctuations in temperatures. Unlike many other products that require consistency of climate, the aging process of balsamic vinegar benefits from the inconsistency of the intense heat of summer then the cold of a winter night.
Balsamic vinegar should be aged for at least 12 years. The master vinegar-maker tastes the brew regularly as it is moved to smaller casks of different types of wood, taking only very small samples so as not to waste any of the precious syrupy liquid.
Quality control for balsamic vinegar expanded in the mid 20th century to standardize every aspect of the production. Categories of different types of balsamic vinegar were established and labeled tradizionale and condimento. Tradizionale must be aged for at least 12 years in wooden casks and be approved by master tasters. These are priced between $75 and $400.
Condimento is made with the identical traditional methods, but by producers outside the Modena and Reggio-Emilia zone or by producers who have decided to release their vinegar earlier than 12 years. These still can be considered quality vinegar, and are much less expensive. There are also many factory-produced imitations that appear in grocery stores for $3-$8. Sometimes they are merely concentrated grape juice with caramel coloring and a fancy label. Although these can be good, they are not authentic.
Tasting is the key to finding the balsamic vinegar that is right for you. In the Italian culinary world, balsamic vinegar is used and is referred to by three general weights. The first is young (3-5 years old) which is lighter in color and viscosity and is used in salad dressings or as a dip for raw vegetables. The second is middle-aged (6-12 years old) and is used to add extra body and character to braised meats and sauces. The third is very old, known fondly as il patriarca (12 to 120 years old). It is a complex tasting, syrup-like liquid best enjoyed on its own after dinner in a tiny portion.
To paraphrase Paul Bertolli, a culinary author, "Everyone who loves to eat has experienced a private moment of awe over some particular food. Such moments refuse description it is impossible to reduce to words what we sense. It is something more mysterious and hard to describe, for aged balsamic vinegar tastes of time itself."