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78. Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar is a secret Italians kept to themselves until the mid 1970s, when Chuck Williams of the Williams-Sonoma cookware and gourmet food chain in the United States discovered it and imported some for sale in his stores and catalogs. This occurred at the same time that the fashion for lighter, more flavorful food dishes, called nouvelle cuisine in French and nuova cucina in Italian, began sweeping the culinary world. Creative chefs discovered in balsamic vinegar just the right combination of pungency and sweetness to give the new dishes an exciting and unorthodox flavor. In the last few decades it has become a staple of gourmet cooking in the United States and throughout the world.
Although cheap imitations of balsamic vinegar are now produced in many countries, the real thing can only be found in two small provinces in northern Italy: Modena and Reggio. The reason for this is that making this kind of aceto (the Italian word for vinegar) is labor intensive and requires a knowledge of special processes that have been passed on from generation to generation in this region since the fifteenth century.
Unlike other kinds of vinegar, it is not made from wine but from the “musts” (i.e., the skin and pulp) of crushed grapes that are heated, aged, and stored for very long periods. First rate balsamic vinegar is at least twelve years old, and extra vecchio types can be aged for up to a century! Naturally this latter type is very rare and costly. Italians classify it as vinegar da bere (for drinking) instead of merely being used da condire (as a condiment or dressing). The culinary scholar Burton Anderson reports that Lucrezia Borgia “used Modena’s vinegar as a tonic for body and soul.”
By the 1990s the imitation rip-offs calling themselves “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” had become so widespread that the Italian government passed legislation banning the use of the term balsamico and any reference to either Modena or Reggio for anything other than the traditional vinegar produced in the region. Of course, Italian laws can be enforced only in Italy, which has not stopped producers in other countries from continuing to turn out inferior products that are misleadingly labeled. But in Modena, the Consorteria di Aceto Balsamico Naturale,” described as “an association of twelve hundred producers, master tasters, and devotees,” keeps the faith by holding a competition each June in the town of Spilamberto, near Modena. There the producers of the region, who take great pride in their product, vie for the coveted Palio di San Giovanni Prize, awarded annually to the vinegar that the judges deem best from the twelve hundred or so entries submitted.
True balsamic vinegar has a syrupy, nearly caramel texture that offers the palette the delight of opposing tastes simultaneously. It fills the mouth with an explosion of flavor that lingers happily as a mild and pleasant aftertaste. Just a few drops of it can turn a drab salad into a culinary adventure.
Buy The Best Balsamic Vinegar
Tip: for truly the best authentic Italian balsamic vinegar only buy bottles that have Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”
Acetaia Leonardi Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Extravecchio – 30yr – simply the best you can get outside of Modena.
Manicardi Extravecchio DOP Balsamic Vinegar Aged Over 25 Years – $149.99 and worth every drop.
MiaBella Balsamic Vinegar – Amazon’s #1 Best Selling Balsamic!
Due Vittorie Oro Gold Balsamic Vinegar – 250ml – much more reasonably priced but still authentic
Villa Manodori Balsamic Vinegar – one of the best reviewed Balsamics
What’s your favorite? Please leave recommendations below.