In the world of pantry staples, balsamic vinegar isn’t something typically raved about. It’s not discussed as often as its other Italian counterparts, like fancy olive oils, aged Parmigiano Reggiano, and negroni sbagliato with prosecco in it. But perhaps it should be.
I don’t think I ever properly tasted balsamic vinegar until I visited Modena, Italy. To me, balsamic vinegar has historically been watery and tangy, something to dress salads with or dip stale bread into and that’s it. It was never memorable-never something to obsess over. I was so, so wrong.
The history of balsamic vinegar of Modena
I assumed that the balsamic vinegar from Modena had to be somewhat different from the varieties I’ve tried in America, seeing as the northern Italian city is the birthplace of the fermented, acidic elixir. There’s conflicting information on when balsamico was actually created, though some documents reveal its existence in as early as the 11th century.
Giovanna Barbieri, the matriarch and one half of the couple who run Acetaia di Giorgio, a multigenerational, family-run balsamic producer, shares the version of events that she was told: in the 1700s, the Duke of Modena at the time used grapes in an attempt to make sweet wine, but the fluctuating weather soured the juices and turned his barrels into vinegar instead.
Whether Modena’s balsamico was intentional or a happy accident, its distinctive sharp flavour and syrupy texture is now a hallmark ingredient from Italy and loved everywhere.
How is balsamic vinegar from Modena made?
Like wine, balsamic vinegar begins with grape must. The crushed grapes-seeds, skins, and all-are then cooked, reducing 70 liters of pulpy grape juice into 35 litres of condensed grape flavour. From there, natural sugars in the juice begin to ferment like wine.
The process of making balsamic vinegar requires a collection of large barrels and empty attic space, where the concentrated Italian summer heat ripens the grape must. A large, open mother barrel contains the beginnings of balsamic vinegar, flavoured with the natural microbacteria floating throughout the region. From there, vinegar is gradually decanted into smaller and smaller barrels over a period of years. The smallest barrel yields the final product that is bottled for retail.
Decanting the vinegar into gradually smaller barrels transforms the vinegar into a more concentrated flavour. You can often see sugar crystals form within these barrels, and the process takes a minimum of 60 days, but can be aged for upwards of 25 years. If the vinegar is matured for at least three years, it’s considered aged.
It’s why some balsamic vinegars are priced the way they are: It often requires more than a decade of time to develop a deep depth of flavour comparable to an expensive bottle of wine or an impressive aged cheese.
What should you pair balsamic vinegar with?
In wine tasting and cheese pairing, you often hear the phrase, “What grows together, goes together.” The same is true for balsamic vinegar. You can drizzle it on aged chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano, brush it on top of both roasted and fresh tomatoes, and even add it to chocolate desserts and fresh fruit. Tortellini, which is common in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, is often finished with balsamic vinegar. The syrupy sweetness balances out the salt from cheeses, but also brings out the bitterness in chocolate and accentuates tart and fruity flavours.
Balsamic vinegar was originally employed as an aperitif, so having a taste by the spoonful is encouraged. When consumed alone, you can appreciate the subtle notes from the type of wood barrels the balsamic was aged in-which ranges from cherry to juniper to oak and other precious woods-and the slippery viscosity. If drinking it straight floods your salivary glands too much, it also works well in a cocktail.
How to find the real stuff
Because the bottles of balsamic vinegar have a PGI and DOP (or Protected Geographical Indication and Protected Designation of Origin, respectively), they have to be crafted in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia to truly represent the Aceto Balsamico di Modena, or the Balsamic Vinegar of Modena consortium. It’s similar to how champagne must come from the Champagne region of France.
You can tell the protected balsamic apart from other fraudulent varieties by the bottle, which will often have a bulbous, round shape and can be constructed from glass, wood, ceramics, and terracotta. Additionally, it is worth looking for the yellow and blue PGI seal, the acronym PGI stamped on the bottle, and the words Aceto Balsamico di Modena.
To get your own balsamic vinegar, for yourself or as a gift, you can place an order online through Eataly, rifle through the online shops of the consortium’s members here, or look for them at your local Italian market-just make sure to keep your eyes out for the seal of approval.
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