From the French Laundry in California to a lunch spot in Pofadder you are likely to find a bottle of balsamic vinegar somewhere in the kitchen drizzled onto salads or turned into a dramatic reduction. But the product that chefs today so easily abuse for its sweetness is worlds apart from the original vinegar that was praised in medieval literature and reserved for the nobility during the Renaissance.
Traditional balsamic vinegar (PDO) is still produced in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy the way it has been done for centuries. According to European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) the condiment can only be made in the region’s provinces of Reggio Emilia and Modena.
The production is closely monitored by the consortiums and producers explain that the secret of the quality lies in the combination of the terroir and the method of production that has been perfected and passed on over years. This is such a valuable tradition that barrels are mentioned in wills drawn up by local notaries and even form part of young ladies’ dowries!
Grapes used for traditional balsamic vinegar have to be cultivated within the specified regions. Trebbiano grapes are most common but other varieties like the Lambrusco Reggiano DOC varieties are also used in Reggio Emilia production.
Once harvested the grapes are pressed and the must is boiled over a low heat until reduced by half. The cooked must is stored in tanks where the vinegar starts to ferment, turning the sugar into alcohol. From here the mixture is moved to a battery of wooden barrels.
The size of a battery depends on the producer but the barrels are made from different types of wood including oak, cherry, mulberry and juniper and barrels gradually decrease in size to give intensity to the aroma of the vinegar.
The battery of barrels is placed in the attic where it is best exposed to the extreme temperatures. The top of the barrels are open and only covered with cloth to allow for evaporation and once a year they are topped up – always with vinegar taken from the next barrel up. In other words the smallest barrel is filled with vinegar from the 2nd smallest and eventually the largest barrel is topped with new must.
In order to be labeled as a “traditional balsamic vinegar” the vinegars have to age for a minimum of 12 years. After inspection bottling is done by the consortium. In Reggio Emilia three ages are available 12 year (red label), 21 years (silver label) and minimum 25 years (gold label). In Modena “traditional balsamic vinegar” labels indicates the 12 year aging while “extravecchio” is printed on labels for the 25 year old vinegar. (Packaging is always in 100ml glass bottles and a 12 year old traditional balsamic vinegar costs around R400.00)
The deep dark brown colour, wood and fruit aroma, dense syrupy consistency and a delicate balance between sweet and sour is the result of 12 year’s patient natural reduction. It is far superior to any of its industrial imitations where caramel is added to must and wine vinegar and there is minimal or no aging, sometimes not even must.
The producers warn that this traditional product has a jealous flavour – do not pair it with other dominant tastes, especially not spicy food. Allow it centre stage and if used in cooking only drizzle it in at the very end. At best just serve it drizzled over Parmigiano Reggiano or over strawberries or ice cream. And use it sparingly as traditional balsamic vinegar is a luxurious condiment in the same league as caviar, truffles and foie gras.