Balsamic vinegar, in Italian ‘aceto balsamico’, is a vinegar originating in Italy – the syrupy dark-brown condiment that one finds in Italian restaurants and gracing deli shelves. It doesn’t contain any balsam at all but the word balsamic refers to its supposed healthful qualities. It’s rather pricey, especially as, when found in your local supermarket, it’s likely not the best quality. The label to look for is one that says it’s traditional balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale) – once tasted you will realise that it’s worth the price. It takes years to produce the best, and it has a story.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is made from a reduction of cooked white Trebbiano or Lambrusco grape juices and has been produced in Modena and Reggio Emilia in Emilia Romagna since the Middle Ages. But it has been enjoying international popularity over the last couple of decades. You would have seen bottles of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and this has a Protected Geographical Status label, and is usually used on restaurant tables and found in supermarkets; but it’s not the same as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena’ and ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia’ are also protected by the designations Denominazione di Origine Protetta and the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin, just like wine and other products. They can be recognised by their approved bottle shapes.
Real Balsamic vinegar must be aged for a minimum of 12 years. This is done in a battery of 5 barrels of between 50 and 15 litres. It’s a tradition that a new baby girl is welcomed with a new flight of barrels, with the resulting vinegar being presented to her when she marries. The barrels are made of different woods such as oak, chestnut, cherry, mulberry, ash or juniper. Each of these woods imparts a different flavour. Some producer’s largest barrels are those which have previously been used for making wine. This would also lend another flavour.
The process for making vinegar is different from that for making wine. First, all barrels are ¾-filled with the cooked grape juice or must. The barrels are not sealed and there is a hole in the top called a cocchiume. A piece of cloth lightly covers the hole but allows air to circulate. There is essential evaporation through this hole and through the staves of the barrels. These barrels are stored in the roof of a building and thus the must is exposed to extremes of temperature, something that will fill the heart of any winemaker with horror.
At the end of a year the wine from the 4th barrel is used to top up the 5th, smallest, barrel to the original ¾ mark again. The 3rd barrel tops up the 4th, the 2nd barrel tops up the 3rd and the 1st barrel tops up the 2nd. The 1st and largest barrel is topped up with new must.
True balsamic vinegar is rich and glossy and is as thick as crude oil. It has a dark mahogany brown colour and has a flavour that has the natural sweet and sour notes that make this such a complex and sought-after product.
In Reggio Emilia there are designations for the different ages of their balsamic vinegar. There are the easily recognisable round bottles with labels of different colours. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years, a silver label is reserved for the vinegar which has been aged for at least 18 years, and a gold label indicates that the vinegar has aged for 25 years or more.
The gold label Balsamic isn’t to be poured but rather slowly dropped, one lazy drip at a time, over Parmesan cheese or perhaps over some strawberries. It works well over a light and unflavoured ice cream. But take a non-metallic spoon and put just a little in the bowl. Take that black gold in your mouth and let it rest there to warm and to bathe your tongue and taste buds. That’s when you realise why Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia is so famed.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018