Everyone in Modena is an expert on balsamic vinegar, just as everyone in Boston is an expert on baseball. Taxi drivers, waiters, hoteliers all have an opinion they are ready to share.
And one thing they all confirm? The balsamic vinegar you buy in the grocery store is often wine vinegar and a little caramel. Check the label. If the first ingredient is
aceto di vino (wine vinegar), put it back on the shelf.
Traditional, authentic balsamic is made with the
mosto (must) of grape only, preferably with certified Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. Only traditionally made balsamic will earn the D.O.P. certification (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), and must be bottled in the distinctive Giugiaro bottle with the official seal of quality.
The must spends its first two years in a barrel (smaller than a wine barrel). Every year some of the must is moved to a smaller barrel and the first barrel is topped off with new must. The centuries old, cherry, oak, chestnut, mulberry, or juniper wood wine barrels that are used get ever smaller as the years pass.
After twelve, twenty-five, or even seventy-five years, the
balsamico is ready to be judged on look (the color must be dark brown, dense and shiny), smell (the aroma must have a string acidity and intensity), taste (the flavor must be full bore, harmonious, with no sign of mold). The score received from the five master judges must be high enough; otherwise, it’s back to the barrel for a while longer.
The real stuff is not cheap (50 euros and up)… save the cheap bottle for cooking. The taxi driver swears that 25-year-old balsamic isn’t any better than twelve-year-old, but it’s all a matter of taste and pocketbook. A drop of top shelf balsamic exploding on your tongue is nirvana. Add a morsel of pecorino, a slice of pear or a strawberry and your life will change.
Sharri writes about food, wine and international travel from Umbria, where she and her husband grow olives. In addition to articles, she writes a blog,
UmbriaBella. Her app, Olive Oil IQ is a portable encyclopedia for foodies and culinary travelers (iTunes & Android). Follow her on Twitter: @umbriabella and @oliveoiliq. Facebook: www.facebook.com/UmbriaBella, and www.facebook.com/oliveoiliq