Many food lovers are unaware that real aceto balsamico is very different to the supermarket versions. GILES MACDONOGH explains why.
About a decade ago I was in Reggio Emilia researching an article about Lambrusco for Decanter. I was sitting down to dinner in a restaurant in the centre of the city, with a bevy of local producers, when the chef came out brandishing a teaspoon containing a drop of some viscous, black elixir. It turned out to be a 60-year-old aceto balsamico: an unbelievably pungent, sweet, nutty, super-concentrated liquid, the taste of which haunted my memory for years.
A couple of years ago I visited the Acetaia Sereni in Modena, a source of top quality aceto balsamico. Although I have seen the method used elsewhere, I had never before seen an aceto balsamico ‘floor’ in production in its pays d’élection. With Pier Luigi Sereni I toured the banks of barrels made from different types of wood: durmast oak, chestnut, juniper, cherry, ash and mulberry… each smaller in capacity than the last. Every year a quantity is drawn off each barrel and poured into the smaller receptacle next to it, with a tiny amount drawn off into glass. Meanwhile the first – and largest – cask is refreshed with cooked must. The last barrel is just tiny, like those little casks used to promote Beaujolais Nouveau in French bars in the third week of November. I was told that the whole process – from oak to glass – takes a minimum of 12 years. At the end of my interview with Sereni I was given a bulbous 100cl phial of aceto balsamico ‘tradizionale di Modena’ by a representative of the local consorzio. This was a generous gesture: it would cost £50 in Modena, and I hate to think what price it would fetch in a smart food shop in Britain.
I can see a few hands raised at the back of the class – ‘You’ve been had! The aceto balsamico in Tesco only costs £2.’ And therein lies the confusion: even though the £2 aceto balsamico comes from the same region, and may be made by the very same producers, it simply isn’t the same stuff and is made by a different process.
The expensive, aged version – called aceto balsamico tradizionale, and classed as a condiment rather than a vinegar – is made with cooked must alone. By contrast, the supermarket version – called aceto balsamico di Modena (balsamic vinegar of Modena or BVM) – is a blend of cooked grape must with wine vinegar. The mention of tradition is crucial. If the word isn’t there in bold, then your bottle will contain a different product. Tradizionale is made in Modena and Reggio Emilia and must be passed through a solera of different woods for at least 12 years before being drawn off and bottled in 100cl phials.
The ‘floors’ where traditional aceto balsamico is made are under the eaves at the hot top of the house. Must from Trebbiano, Lambrusco or Ancellotta grapes is reduced by half over a direct flame, left to decant then poured into barrels that are two thirds’ full. Here a gradual fermentation takes place while the liquid reduces over a period of years, encouraged by the fluctuations in temperature under the roof, with fierce heat in the summer and bracing cold in winter. This very slow fermentation aims to preserve as much of the sugars in the cooked must as possible. Dissipating them would spoil the character: it has to be very sweet indeed. One of the classic recipes attached to it is to pour a few drops onto strawberries: a stunning combination. The longer you leave aceto balsamico, the better it gets. Twelve years is the minimum age for tradizionale – after 25 years, producers may use the term ‘extra vecchio’ (extra old). Pietro Pesce, of importers Danmar, is one of the most respected authorities on Italian food in Britain. When it comes to aceto balsamico his message is: ‘buyer beware’. The tradizionale and its more ordinary stablemate ‘don’t live well together’ in his opinion. For men like Pesce, the tradizionale version is the only way to go, yet is chiefly restricted to connoisseurs. He marvels at the approach of ‘modern British’ chefs who slosh cheap aceto balsamico into everything they can from half-litre bottles. The tradizionale version is measured in droplets.
As Pesce points out, the confusion certainly doesn’t do the producers any harm. It would be difficult for them to live on tradizionale alone, so all make blends of cooked must – or saba – and wine vinegar. Some of these are very good, and almost as expensive as the tradizionale. And they are, in fact, just as traditional, as any perusal of ancient recipes for Modena vinegar will prove: the use of cooked must only became widespread in the nineteenth century when it was advocated by the lawyer Francesco Aggazzotti in the 1860s as a method of speeding the process up. Before then it was more common to blend uncooked must with wine vinegar. The ageing process for raw must is far longer, which explains why the old Modena vinegars were anything up to 100 years old, and the pride and joy of the rich old families of the region. Sadly, most of the blended versions are not like their historical counterparts. The best indication here is price – the cheapest will be crude blends of caramel with coarse wine vinegar. As in every other domain, you get what you pay for.
The tradizionale is the descendant of the special vinegars prepared in various patrician households from the Middle Ages onwards. A little cask was often given as a dowry at the marriage of a daughter. Stocks of sweet old vinegar were status symbols for the rich in both Modena and Reggio. The first use of the term ‘aceto balsamico’ occurred only in 1747. Before then special vinegars were often referred to as ‘ducal’, an allusion to the ruling Este family. Naturally, only the best vinegars were to be found in the palace cellars. Pace Pesce, the better-made BVM, is useful for some things. The super-concentrated must vinegar is actually quite difficult to cook with. You cannot reduce the tradizionale as it is already the very soul of reduction. Its uses are limited to salads (one drop per person) or dressing cooked vegetables. Some chefs put a spot on a piece of parmigiano reggiano; others make a beurre manié with it, and add it to a piece of beef fillet as it comes off the grill. BVM, on the other hand, can be reduced in cooking, because it is a less-concentrated fluid. In most cases, a spot of reduction would actually do it the world of good.
Aceto balsamico tradizionale is not only very expensive, it is rare. Don’t bother to look for it in the Italian deli down the road, they won’t stock it. Very few of the precious little bottles leave the region. It is probably in the cities of Modena, Reggio Emilia, Parma or Bologna that you are most likely to encounter the real thing, and then only in a very good restaurant. As for the ordinary BVMs – tread carefully. In some cases, a good, non-balsamic vinegar is superior. As always, you get what you pay for.
Giles MacDonogh writes for The Financial Times.