Balsamic vinegar: the words alone conjure up a mystical elixir that can cure all ailments. The ultimate condiment. Italians speak of it in hushed tones, as of it were more precious than gold (and it probably costs as much). So what is it, actually? And is there a kosher version available?
The word balsamico (from Latin balsamum) means ‘balsam-like’ in the sense of ‘restorative’ or ‘curative’. The traditional balsamic vinegar, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale has been produced in Italy since the Middle Ages. Appreciated by the House of Este during the Renaissance, it is highly valued by modern chefs and gourmet food lovers. Only two consortia produce true traditional balsamic vinegar: Modena and neighbouring Reggio Emilia.
True balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. The resulting thick syrup, called mosto cotto, is subsequently aged for a minimum of 12 years in a battery of seven barrels of successively smaller sizes. The casks are made of different woods like chestnut, acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash and juniper, intensifying the wine’s flavour over the years, making it sweet, viscous and very concentrated. During this period, a considerable portion of the wine evaporates: it is said to be the “angels’ share”, a term also used in the production of bourbon whiskey, scotch whisky, wine, and other alcoholic beverages.
None of the product may be withdrawn until the end of the minimum ageing period of 12 years. At the end of this ageing period (12, 18, or 25 years) a small portion is drawn from the smallest cask and each cask is then topped up with the contents of the preceding (next larger) cask. Freshly reduced cooked ‘mosto cotto’ is added to the largest cask and in every subsequent year the drawing and topping up process is repeated.
True balsamic vinegar is rich, glossy, deep brown in colour and has a complex flavour that balances the natural sweet and sour elements of the cooked grape juice with hints of wood from the casks. it is also very expensive, small bottles easily fetching three-figure prices.
In Emilia-Romagna, Tradizionale balsamic vinegar is most often served in small drops over chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano and mortadella, as an antipasto. It is also used sparingly to enhance steaks, eggs or grilled fish, as well as on fresh fruit such as strawberries and pears as well as on plain ‘crema’ (custard) gelato. It may also be drunk from a tiny glass to conclude a meal.
In order to popularise the product, an inexpensive version was created and is today widely available and commonly found in shops and on restaurant tables. In order for it to be called Aceto Balsamico di Modena, (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) and bear a Protected Geographical Status label it needs to be aged for at least 2 months, but not necessarily in wooden casks. Some older invecchiato versions (3 years) can also be found and are a step in the right direction but nowhere near as precious as the Tradizionale. Some even cheaper kinds bearing neither the Tradizionale/DOC (the expensive one) or Aceto Balsamico di Modena (the cheaper but still fairly authentic version) labels are just masquerading as either of the above and will have been coloured and flavoured with caramel – although they’re fine for salad dressings and glazes, they won’t have any of the authentic intensity of flavour.
So far, there are no kosher versions of Tradizionale but a couple of decent versions of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena do exist. We wait and live in hope for a taste of Tradizionale one day soon. But start saving…