Italian Balsamic Vinegar: Its History And Usage

Balsamic Vinegar from Modena and Reggio, Italy, are the only true balsamic vinegars in the world. The tradition started here and is still

Price is not a relevant factor when choosing a balsamic vinegar. Many people pay over $50.00 for a small bottle only to bring it home to find it rancid. The area from which the vinegar originates, as well as the method by which it is bottled, is a much stronger indicator of the quality. Vinegars produced in the provinces of Modena and Reggio in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy are truly the finest one can buy.

There are three types of balsamic vinegars, those made in Modena and Reggio by the ancient artisan method, these are tested by quality control experts; the commerical brands from outside Modena and Reggio; and the imitations. The imitations are those of lesser quality, if you can avoid buying these types, do, as the true taste of a balsamic cannot be imitated. Frequently these brands will have a more rancid flavor and can possibly ruin your culinary creations. A commercial brand is acceptable will suit most of your dishes. These are the brands most often available in the United States. They are slightly more acidic than artisan produced vinegars, but still a fine choice. Fini is a fine commercial brand as well as Cavalli or Cattani. These brands should all be stored in a cool, dark place away from heat to maintain the consistency of the flavor. Commerical balsamics have a variety of uses which include, drizzling on baked potatoes instead of using butter or sour cream; sprinkling over steamed vegetables; replacing soy sauce in stir-fried vegetables and using as a substitute for salt over poultry or meat. One of the best uses is over fresh tomatoes and mozzarella with a touch of basil. The vinegar brings out the flavor of the basil and is the number one ingredient in veal scallopine, which also uses fresh basil as the primary spice.

There is nothing quite like an artisan-made balsamic vinegar. In old times, this vinegar wasn't even made available to the general public, but only made and served to the royal houses in Italy. Twenty-five years ago, it still wasn't available for purchase in stores, but only shared among friends and relatives and given as gifts. Today, even tiny casks are given to new brides in the Modena and Reggio regions. An artisan-made balsamic has a taste so incredible that many Italians prefer to sip it as an after dinner liqueur. This vinegar is not traditionally used in the same way the commercial brands are. For an artisan-made balsamic, it is best not to heat the vinegar as it loses some of the fine properties of taste. Artisan-made vinegars are more popularly used on fresh ingredients, such as salads and fruit or over already cooked meat. To be sure you purchased an authentically made artisan, look for the code API MO, which indicates the vinegar was made in Modena, or API RE, which indicates the Reggio province. Artisan made vinegars have been aged for a minimum of 12 years. Each drop of vinegar is decanted and aged through a minimum of three barrels. An artisan presents his barrel of vinegar to the vinegar consortium for the region and the barrel is then tested by five experts. Either the barrel will be accepted and bottled, or rejected and returned to the artisan. Even the bottles the vinegar will be bottled and stored in have very strict standards. Most bottles have a large glass globe with a large narrow neck and are capped with a cork. The bottles are then labeled with one of three different colored labels indicating the quality of the artisan vinegar. The gold label is the most highly coveted, indicating superior quality of the artisan vinegar. As you would expect these vinegars are quite expensive, with the cheapest bottle costing about $50, the most expensive is well over $100. Artisan made vinegars are used sparingly so the bottle should last a number of years and you could be buying a vinegar that has been aged well over 100 years. These traditionally made vinegars will have a sable or brown-black color and as the bottle is tipped, the vinegar should leave a thin trace of color down the side of the glass. The taste should be smooth and full-bodied much the same as an aged brandy. An artisan made vinegar is absent of a strong acidic taste.

No two artisan made balsamics will taste alike as each has been decanted in several different barrels and varieties of wood. The casks are highly prized relics of the tradition and when a cash deteriorates, the artist will disassemble the cask and use the salvageable parts in the production of a new cask, thereby ensuring a vinegar's constant contact with aged and seasoned wood. Some casks in use today are centuries old.

If you get the chance to visit an artisan's home while traveling through Italy, it is highly recommended. Vinegar tasting may not sound like a typically appealing adventure, but the sheer witnessing of the artisan as he decants and presents a small amount of the precious nectar in the tiniest of glasses for tasting is a work of art in itself.

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