Long before it emerged as a flavoring, balsamo served as a healing balm. Its earliest definition (in 1294) describes it as a “sostanza medicamentosa aromatica estratta dal tronco di molte piante” (an aromatic, medicinal sustance extracted from the trunk of many plants). Apothecaries sold sciroppo acetoso (vinegary syrup) as a pharmaceutical treatment.
Centuries-old letters in Modena describe a tincture of balsamico reportedly capable of raising the dead. Having tasted velvety-smooth, luscious 60-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena, I can attest that a few drops can bring any dish to life.
The making of classic aceto balsamico begins with the production of must (grape juice) from the white Trebbiano grapes of Modena or Reggio Emilia. Carefully heated until it turns into a dark brown syrup, the must is mixed with old wine vinegar to start the fermentation process.
Unlike wine, which comes to its fullness in carefully regulated conditions, balsamico gradually matures and develops its flavor in lofts called acetaia that are cold in winter, hot in summer and damp during rainy seasons. In the Renaissance noble families, such as the d’Este of Mantua, owned their own acetaia.
Over the course of at least three years ten gallons of must distills to a couple of pints of vinegar. Italians tell me that eight years of aging is better; twelve better still. Best of all are balsamic vinegars that have fermented for a quarter to a half century--or longer.
In the first stage of fermentation, the sugar in the must turns into alcohol. Then the vinegar bacteria convert the alcohol to vinegar. In the traditional method young balsamic vinegar begins to mature in large barrels made of mulberry wood (gelso). In time it is poured into smaller barrels of cherry (ciliegio) or chestnut (castagno). The smallest barrels, used for the oldest vinegar, are made of ash (frassino) or oak (rovere). Artisan producers zealously hide the secret of which ingredients they add at different stages, but commonly used spices include cinnamon, cloves, mace, coriander and licorice.
These days factories produce balsamic vinegar in faster, more efficient ways that vary in quality. The price (high) and size of the bottle (small) are two indicators of a fine balsamic. For the best quality, check for the official declaration “aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena” or “aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia.” Only the members of the highly regulated consortiums in these places have the right to display these words on their labels.
What about the inexpensive varieties in large bottles you can find at the local supermarket? They may be nothing more than wine vinegar gussied up with a few spices and caramel coloring.
Words and Expressions
sott’aceto -- seasoned with vinegar, pickled
acetosità -- acidity, sourness
Fontana dell’acqua acetosa -- a famous fountain in Rome, built upon request of Pope Paolo V in 1619
aceto di vino -- wine vinegar
If you live in the San Francisco area, please join us for a celebration (with wine and delicious appetizers) of Italian food and language:
Thursday, July 30, 6:00 p.m.
A.G. Ferrari Foods
468 Castro Street
San Francisco, CA