Circa 1046. Roman Emperor Henry III was given a silver vial containing a liquid as precious as gold while passing through a town on his way to his coronation. It would, as records would later state, not only one of the most exquisite (read: expensive and exotic) gift presented but also the first time that balsamic vinegar was mentioned. Back then, balsamic vinegar was albeit a known condiment was considered almost gold-like because it was produced only in the provinces of Reggio Emilia and neighboring Modena. In fact, such was the value of this rich, dark, palate-coating wine that it was often referred to as Modena Gold – and is still considered a national treasure. Such is the value of the vinegar produced in Modena that it has been accorded the status of Denominazione di Origine Controllata (a title reserved for wines) that not only guarantees its authenticity but brings it to the same stature as a good heirloom wine. In fact, the balsamic vinegar from this region is called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena
(tradizionale is the important word) and is considered to be the best among all.
What makes the vinegar so special? To begin with the vinegar is bottled at a single consortium in the region; are matured for not less than 10 years (they are versions that are barrel-aged up to 25 years before bottling) as compared to three years for cheaper variants; are made by cold pressing locally grown and late-harvested grapes —usually Lambrusco or Trebbiano varieties.
But the real test that separates the gold from the imitation isn’t just the price, the technique or the grapes, says Chef Bakshish Dean (Director, Prime Gourmet Pvt Ltd.), “but the taste.”
Adds Chef Dean, “good quality balsamic vinegar is rich, sweet, spicy, honeyed, nectarous (with a faint woody bite), while the commercially produced one is runny, acidic but mellow and appears like a diluted grape juice. In fact, the palate memory of the latter is non-existent. It is these characteristics that makes the traditional balsamic vinegar or as the Italian call aceto balsamico such a brilliant (and expensive) culinary wonder.”
While this may explain why most chefs would insist on the traditional variety instead of the easily available commercial brands, when it comes to balsamic vinegar in the market the choices are as bewildering as the names. So how does one know which is the best? While taste and price are of course the two primary distinctions, adds Chef Dean, “knowing your balsamic vinegar too is important.”
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
Considered to the real deal, traditional balsamic vinegar is, in fact, the purest of all, and is known for its rich, sweet, spicy texture. Usually produced in the rural precincts of the province of Modena in north-central Italy, it is made of the juice of local trebbiano grapes, boiled down to a sweet syrup. Yeast converts the syrup first into alcohol, then into acetic acid (vinegar), preserving much of its sweetness throughout. Once ready, the vinegar is stored in wood barrels to age. How long one should age the vinegar depends on the maker and go upto three decades or even longer. The vinegar gets its distinct character from the barrels, which are made of different wood types including that of oak, chestnut, juniper, mulberry among others. Once a year the vinegar is moved from a bigger barrel to a smaller one, and it is this multi-barrel process that gives it its glossy, viscous, and dark brown colour with a syrupy texture. The easy way to identify the bottles is the label Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale and wax-sealed bottles with unique identifying numbers.
Culinary Usage: Though one of the finest balsamic vinegar available, the traditional variant is not for cooking and is best used as a dressing or a dip – be it with fresh berries, bread, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, risotto, bollito misto, seafood, creamy desserts like panna cotta, zabaglione and vanilla ice cream.
The term “Condimento” is generally used for vinegar’s made in the traditional style. Though not as refined as the traditional vinegar, they are equally good, and a chef’s next choice if the traditional balsamic vinegar is not available. Usually made of grapes that didn’t pass the Modena Gold standard, this vinegar is usually more affordably priced and are considered value for money. Made by condensing through maturation, Condimento Balsamico when aged well tends to have greater viscosity and depth of color, and is a wonderful mix of acidity, sweetness, and leathery, cherry flavors. These versions though carry the “indicazione geografica protetta” stamp get often mixed with equally priced synthetic balsamic. A good way to find the real condiment is to check for grapes not wine vinegar as the first ingredient in the ingredients list, says Chef Dean, who suggests to also look for the family name and a real address on the label, which usually is an accepted benchmark for good taste.
Culinary Usage: Similar to traditional balsamic.
Balsamic Vinegar Of Modena IGP
Balsamic vinegars made their US debut back in 1977 thanks to one Chuck Williams, the founder of Williams-Sonoma. Though presumed to be the real deal back then, Williams’ produced vinegar was at best a derivative product, which eventually led not only to the creation of the special traditional stamp, but also the IGP designation. This EU introduced version ensured that the product used grape varietals typical of Modena (Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana. Lambrusco, Montuni, Sangiovese, and Trebbiano) while making the vinegar, albeit there was no rule on the process of making, which was by cooking these grapes in pressurized vats and aging for at least two months in large wooden barrels before selling. Result: IGP became synonymous to blends where wine vinegar was added to get the right acidity along with thickening agents like caramel and/or other colorants that gave the balsamic vinegar a close to traditional balsamic appearance. Given the higher acidity, Modena IGP’s taste profile varies from being highly acidic to sweet depending on the colour: dark is sweet! Interestingly, it was this version that led to the presence of cheap vinegar.
These are the cheapest and the worst variety of balsamic vinegar on a shop shelf. Made using vinegar, sweetener and food coloring, these industrial produced balsamic emulate the texture and flavor of a traditional balsamic, but are insipid to taste.
Some of the products available under this category is flavoured balsamic. Essentially balsamic vinegar infused with flavor additives such as lemon, herbs, vanilla, fruit, berries, etc, the only thing real in this is the name balsamic and not the product.
Visit a Foodhall near you to buy our exclusive range of balsamic vinegars from Modena