Since 1978 I have gone to the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna in search of that very elusive product: genuine, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. Until 1982 it was unfruitful. Those who had stocks of real Tradizionale never sold it. They gave it away as gifts to friends or important personages such as the family doctor or lawyer.
Another problem is that an inferior Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is widely offered. Now Corti Brothers is able to offer a range of quality Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale unparalleled in this part of the world and probably not equaled in Italy.
What is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale - the object of a five year search?
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is a vinegar of a very special sort. It is vinegar in that it has an acetic acid content, but it is not made in the same way as normal wine vinegar. Wine vinegar is the oxidation of ethanol in wine to acetic acid by Acetobacter, the vinegar bacteria. On the other hand, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is started by boiling over a direct fire in copper kettles, fresh grape juice (or must) from ripe Trebbiano grapes. A tiny quantity of old, strong vinegar is then added to this syrup to insure acetification.
This mixture is aged for 10, 15, 30, 50, or 100 years in a series of small casks of different woods called a “batteria.” Traditionally these casks which make up the batteria are in varying sizes and are coopered of chestnut, mulberry, oak, cherry, acacia, ash and sometimes juniper. Each wood confers a special character and flavor. Very slow fermentation of the boiled down must produces an amount of alcohol which is slowly converted to vinegar by acetic acid bacteria. The alcoholic fermentation is little evident since it takes place in a high density liquid. The two varieties of microflora needed are Saccharomyces yeast and Acetobacter bacteria. Yeast enzymes produce the alcohol slowly, and, as it is produced, Acetobacter bacteria convert it to vinegar.
Aging is obligatory and perhaps the most important part of the Aceto Balsamico process. The aging method is like that of a solera. One generally starts with an already old batteria and refreshes it once a year or so. Barrel size is small; generally the largest is no more than 50 liters capacity and goes down to 5 or 10 liters. Each year only a small amount, generally less than a liter, can be taken from the oldest, smallest cask. This is “refreshed” with vinegar from the next oldest, slightly larger one. Each cask is generally also of different wood and the vinegar is flavored by extraction.
The aging cellars are usually in the attics of houses where temperatures reach levels adequate to keep the Acetobacter working at least part of the year. Evaporation is also a factor and partially responsible for the density and syrup-like quality of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale can also be produced artificially by adding boiled-down must to normal vinegar and then adding caramel to this blend and selling it as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. This takes a matter of weeks to produce and is generally what is offered at low prices on the American market.
Traditionally in the Emilia-Romagna, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is produced by the lady of the house and a batteria was usually given as part of a dowry. Interestingly, miniatures showing women producing vinegar in house attics can be found in the Codex Salernitanus of the 13th century so that at least this tradition must have been common at that time.
The term Balsamico is curious. It has nothing whatever to do with its English homonym balsa or balsa wood. The Balsamico means balm as in something which softens, heals or comforts. In Italian it takes on the notion of being smooth, harmoniously flavored, and very precious; appropriately it is used in small doses. Its first mention as Aceto “Balsamico” dates from an inventory in 1747 of the cellars of the Dukes of Modena, although doubtless the term was in use for a longer period. This first mention is in regard to that special vinegar reserved for the Duke’s own use. The Modena area was already famous for it’s vinegar. There is a record of a gift of vinegar being made to Henry III, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1046 by Boniface, marquis of Bologna and Modena. The tradition had not died out.
The Dukes of Modena, the Este family, continued to make gifts of this vinegar to other important European personages until the dissolution of their dominions in the 19th century. This tradition continues today with the hobbyist producers of natural Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. This dense, fragrant liquid is generally for giving to friends, not selling in lively commerce.
But why all the fuss about vinegar, you might ask? Vinegar has always been considered very precious and useful. It was (and is) used as a preservative, tenderizer, odorizer, thirst quencher and medicine. The intense, pleasant aroma that vinegar has when it is properly made and aged produces varying sensations when it is used. The Roman legions marched on a diet of vinegar, bread and water, posca, not much different from the Andalusian gazpacho. In the 18th and 19th centuries, air fresheners called “vinaigrier” were very much in vogue. Vinegar has been used as a mouthwash and disinfectant. In the kitchen it’s uses as a preservative, tenderizer and flavor enhancer are well known.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, due to it’s syrup origins, is slightly different from normal vinegar. It is generally used cut with normal vinegar for salads. A few drops on grilled meats puts it into use as a condiment. Due to it’s sweet/sharp character, sauces are improved by using it. Strawberries with a few drops of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale are more perfumes and fragrant. Sprinkled on chips of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, it enhances a cheese course. Sipped in tiny glasses, it becomes a refreshing digestif. It is not a condiment for everyday use, but does improve the fragrancy and flavor of everything it can be used with. None of these extraordinary qualities are evident when mass produced Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is used.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale that is truly balsamico cannot ever be inexpensive. Time is the great factor. It must be at least 10 years old, better at 50 and perfect at 100. Given the tiny quantity that can be removed from a batteria at any time and the fact that the series of barrels is never very great, production must necessarily be limited.
How can you tell the real aceto from the not so real? Just shake the bottle. Traditional Aceto Balsamico has a peculiar viscosity and syrupy character due to evaporation and the concentration age gives. It leaves the sides of the glass stained. Other products do not do this and are just liquid. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale cannot ever be cheap. It is also not for everyone.
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