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Balsamic Vinegar

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The History

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How its Made

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History

 The first written records of what we can only imagine is balsamic vinegar dates back to Virgil (70 B.C.-19 B.C.) in the first book of The Georgics where he describes a farm in his home town Mantua, which was part of the Emilia region in the Roman era, writes: “it is autumn… his wife solaces herself with singing over her endless labour, running the noisy shuttle through the warp, or boiling down the sweet juice of grape must, on the fire, while skimming the cauldron’s boiling liquid with a leaf”. The agronomist Lucius Columella, when describing the ideal farm in the first century AD, mentions a cella defrutaria (a cellar where wine is boiled). Lucius Columella in his De Re Rustica writes: “this (the cooked must), once cooled, is poured into the barrels so that it can be used after one year”.

What is commonly considered to be the first historical reference however is in 1046: It is recorded that a well-known vinegar, laudatum acetum, produced in Canossa, a town in the province of Reggio Emilia, was given in a silver bottle as a present by the Marquis Bonifacio to the soon-to-be Holy Roman Emperor Enrico III of Franconia, when he passed through the area en route to Rome.

It also was indicated in records that begin in the 1500s, via the writings of the poet Ludovico Ariosto (author of Orlando Furioso and native of Reggio Emilia) at the Estensi court. “Black vinegar” was mentioned as a mix of sour vinegar and saba (sweetened vinegar), with a typical bitter-sweet flavor.

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In the 16th century, when the Estensi court moved to Modena, the first evidences of balsamic vinegar appear. Documents reveal it to have qualities that distinguish it from common vinegar and describe how to produce it, specifying that must from Trebbiano grapes must be left to mellow in an attic for several years. By the 1700s, it was recognized rare and valuable enough to be used as a special occasion vinegar and served to VIPs.

In its early days, balsamic vinegar was very available only to the nobility and the artisans who made it themselves aristocrats.

It was believed to be a miracle cure for everything from a sore throat to labor pains (the name balsamic, from balm, is derived from its purported medicinal properties, including its use as a protection against the plague). Made from local grapes and aged in local woods, for centuries it was made privately on individual estates and farmsteads, and only in the last few decades has become a commercial product, made for sale to others. Prior to then, balsamic was produced for family use only.

Barrels passed from one generation to the next, often aging for 50 to 200 years or more. This “legacy” created an unimaginably rich, molasses-thick syrup served in droplets on Parmesan cheese and strawberries. Kept in locked cupboards and dispensed by the dropperful, from the beginning the precious black liquid was often part of a bride’s dowry and it still is. Even the “youngsters,” just 12 or 25 years of age, are coveted.

We can revel in it, but where was balsamic vinegar during the generations of our parents and grandparents?

 

Unless yours were Italian, balsamic was not even on the radar screen. As a homemade product, it was not commercially available in the U.S. until the 1970s.

At that time, several factors, the demand for fine foods from Europe based on Americans’ travels abroad, the turn of focus to the refined cuisine of northern Italy over the immigrant fare of the south, and the migration of great chefs to America, brought balsamic vinegar to the consciousness of fine chefs and gourmets and caused a burgeoning demand that led to commercial production of balsamic vinegar.

 

By the 1980s, newspapers nationwide were publishing recipes for home cooks: Anyone could make chicken breasts with balsamic vinegar or glaze salmon with balsamic. Not the Traditional balsamic, mind you, but with the commercial brands that had also become popular in Italy, and were being imported as well as replicated domestically.

 

The good stuff did arrive, too. By the 1990s, lovers of fine food had become aware that Parmigiano Reggiano was not something to be grated over pasta, but perhaps the world’s greatest cheese, to be enjoyed with drops of rare balsamic vinegar; and that anything even melon and prosciutto could be accorded new excitement with a few drops of good balsamic.

During the 1995, Compagnia Del Montale won an important award in U.S.

 

But with the good came the bad. The surging popularity of balsamic brought unauthentic “authentic balsamics,” as well as an ocean of imitation balsamics sugared and colored cheap vinegar masquerading as the real thing. To protect the reputation and value of authentic balsamic vinegar, in 1979 a marketing and exportation consortium was formed in Modena. The name “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” has been protected since 1983.

How its Made

  • What grapes are used:

    • High sugar

    • Picked very late in the season

    • Varietals: Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana and Montuni.

  • Cooking

    • Put in Copper cauldrons on a wood fire

    • Boiled to cokked must

    • Unlike other vinegars traditional balsamic vinegars do not start from a wine they are put to cook as grapes

    • This boils till the water content reaches at least half  of its original (usually taking between 13-16 hours)

    • Cooled and allowed to settle

    • The liquid is then combined with a “mother” balsamic (this mother balsamic has various yeasts and bacteria) essential to turn the liquid from juice to acetic acid (vinegar)

  • Aging

    • The liquid then begins its journey through a series of casks known as the batteria - the largest of which tends to be 60L but can be bigger - then moving down progressively in size (50, 40, 30, 24, 20, 16, 13, and finally 10L)

    • The batteria can have as few as 5 or as many as 10 casks depending on the taste of the producer

    • Only certain woods can be used for the casks: acacia, ash, cherry, chestnut, juniper, mulberry, oak, and walnut.

    • To be classified as a Tradizionale Balsamic a producer must use at least 3 of these woods

    • In the casks the liquid goes from alcoholic fermentation to acetic oxidization (sugars -> alcohol -> acid)

    • Each year in january or february the vinegar is decanted and transferred to a different cask of progressively smaller sizes - each wood adds a unique flavour to the vinegar - this stage is called “topping off”

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