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“A drop of balsamic vinegar?”, confronted with this question, any gourmet worth his salt will immediately answer “which one?”. The full name of this product is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, but it is widely imitated both in Italy and elsewhere in the world. The dark concentrated liquid, as shiny and velvety as a syrup and reminiscent of a liqueur, is sold in small bottles and consumed one drop at a time.
Its taste is pleasantly sharp and well-balanced with hints that vary according to the type of wood cask it has aged in, for a period ranging from 12 years to a maximum of 25. In this case, its label will bear the wording “extravecchio” (extra old) and a golden capsule, and its price will be around 100 Euro for a quantity of 100 mg.
What is Balsamic Vinegar?
Authentic Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is fruit of the vinegarization of cooked grape must, while other types produced in the area are made from wine vinegar to which must and caramel are added. The term “balsamico” dates back to the 1700s when remarkable healing properties were attributed to this nectar and it was used as an antidote against the sores caused by the plague, or for curing headaches. Some grandmothers still use it today to help digestion at the end of a meal. The DOP label (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, literally “Protected Designation of Origin”) was assigned by the European Community in 2000.
The History of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
Balsamic vinegar of Modena traces its roots back as far as the Roman age. In fact cooked grape must was mentioned by Cicero, Pliny and Virgil in the Georgics; in the Middle Ages it was already considered to be a great luxury. Balsamic vinegar has always been synonymous with the culture and history of the ancient Dukedom of Este. Wine production was already widespread in Roman times and, during this same period, grape must used to be cooked and made into a foodstuff of great economic and cultural importance. A battery of vinegar casks was a precious family possession, so much so that it was left in inheritance and represented a valuable dowry for young brides of noble descent. It was kept in the attic where it was lovingly looked after by one generation after another. Balsamic vinegar was also believed to be a cure for all types of diseases, a gift fit for a prince or king.
How is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Made?
The basic ingredient is the grape must of typical varietals growing in the Modena area: Trebbiano and Lambrusco. The grape must is cooked in open-air boilers until it reduces to half its volume. Then it is left to ferment in vats where the sugar content turns into alcohol. Once its alcohol content has reached a level of 6/7%, acetic acid bacteria are added to trigger oxidation. The best way to preserve it is in the attic.
At a subsequent stage, the product is decanted to small casks where it will be kept for a lengthy period, passing from a larger cask to a smaller one, that is to say from one containing 75/100 litres to a smaller one of approximately 10 litres. A battery will contain from three to five casks. The secret is to ferment the grape must by transferring it from one cask to another throughout its long ageing process.
The casks may be made of oak, cherry, mulberry or juniper wood and each wood variety will contribute to the resulting aroma. Juniper regales resinous aromas, cherry sweetens and oak confers vanilla notes. An expert of balsamic vinegar knows how and when to decant the precious liquid from one cask to another. His task also consists in topping up the balsamic vinegar which evaporates in the course of time. The final bottle is small and round.
Today, there are slightly more than one hundred makers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, with an overall production of around 70,000 bottles, all certified by a committee of expert tasters.
How to enjoy traditional balsamic vinegar
Balsamic vinegar of Modena can be used whenever a dish requires a hint of corpulent and complex acidity. It is preferable to use it straight from the bottle, a drop at a time.
First of all, we need to choose a product of the right age for the dish we intend to serve. Generally speaking, a young balsamic vinegar is perfect for dressing salads, making a vegetable dip or marinating meat and fish, because it is very fluid and not too intense. If you wish to add an additional touch of acidity to risotto, soup, meat and fish, roast and boiled meats, it is advisable to use a medium-aged balsamic vinegar. Then, to accompany cheese, crustaceans, fruit, ice-cream or spoon desserts, a balsamic vinegar aged over ten years is a must.
Traditional Extravecchio balsamic vinegar, aged over 20 years, is perfect for enjoying alone, possibly at the end of a meal, with a very mature Grana Padano or Parmigiano. You may have tasted it already on strawberries but we invite you to try an even better pairing: choose some large raspberries, gently open their segments and fill the berries with a drop of Balsamic Vinegar.