Balsamic vinegar, which takes its name from ‘balsamic’ meaning ‘health giving’, is a traditional product of the province of Modena in Italy, produced on an artisanal scale and greatly superior to any ‘balsamic vinegar’ which comes from factories.
Making the real thing takes a long time!
The must from specially cultivated varieties of grapes is reduced to half, or even a third, by slow simmering. It is then fermented and acidified for one year before it sets off on a long journey from youthful zest to sumptuous maturity, siphoned from one container to another in a “batteria” of barrels of ever decreasing size. Each barrel is made from a different wood which adds its own aroma to the slowly concentrating liquid. This traditionally takes place under the rooftops of homes in the region, from the Este palace in the centre of Modena where the ducal acetaia flourished in the 18th century, to the attics of normal families. Here the extremes of climate and temperatures contribute to the maturing process as the ‘aceto balsamico’ concentrates by evaporation during the stifling summer heat and rests and matures during the cold, clammy winters.
The densely perfumed brew needs to be used with respect for its qualities. Just a few drops in a salad of fresh herbs, a dribble across a home made vanilla ice cream, a scant teaspoon swirled into the cooking juices of grilled or fried meat and a small dose in a liqueur glass make a fine after dinner digestive reminding us of its medical use in the past and hence its name, a balsamic cure-all.
Before the balsamic vinegar can be sold under the traditional label of authenticity, it is sampled blind by members of the guild of balsamic vinegar makers and has to be approved. The merits of the ‘real thing’ are undisputed but may have been exaggerated by becoming a fashionable ingredient in sophisticated restaurants in western countries and the production of inferior vinegars in factories has been encouraged by the promise of high commercial gains.
There is no substitute for the traditionally made balsamic vinegar. A true 30-year-old balsamic vinegar must have travelled through at least 15 barrels, as traditionally, it has reduced enough in two years to be moved to the next smaller barrel.