The Good Life – A Few Words About Balsamic

It involves the reduction and careful aging of Italian grapes. It is treasured by chefs and lovers of gourmet foods for its ability to add complexity and subtle character to foods. The very best varieties are aged between 25 and 50 years, and can cost from $100 to $500 dollars US per bottle, making each drop precious. In case you’re wondering, I am talking about balsamic vinegar, more correctly known as aceto Balsamico di Modena.

According to the foodies behind the America website, the first historical reference to balsamic vinegar (which is only produced in the Modena and Reggio regions of Italy) dates all the way back to the year 1046, when a bottle of balsamic vinegar was reportedly given to Emperor Enrico III of Franconia as a gift. At that time, it had a reputation as somewhat of an all-purpose miracle food, supposedly capable of curing everything from sore throats to labour pains.

The production balsamic vinegar involves producing a reduced syrup by slowly and painstakingly cooking copper cauldrons full of sweet white grapes over open flames. The resultant syrup, called “must,” is combined with mature vinegar to aid in the acetification process (transformation into acetic acid, or vinegar). Yearly, the developing vinegar is poured into barrels of differing types of wood (e.g., oak, ash, cherry, chestnut, acacia, mulberry, juniper) to add subtle nuances to its flavour. After aging anywhere from three and a half years to a century and a half, the vinegar is ready for a wide spectrum of culinary uses. In my kitchen, it is indispensable for preparing salad dressings or dipping good thick wedges of bread into. More importantly, I use it in a multitude of sauces and soups to add a dark, rich depth to the flavour.

Although this sweet, complex vinegar can be exorbitantly expensive, there are good, affordable varieties available in food stores, especially if you are willing to go the extra mile and search out a good Italian delicatessen with a line on quality-imported products. The Italian deli that I frequent in Vancouver has several varieties available in the range of twenty dollars per bottle for a half litre. I do think it’s worth spending a bit extra for the moderately good stuff. Remember, it only takes a few drops to radically transform the flavours of your cooking!

Balsamic vinegar: all balsamic vinegars are not created equal!