Exploring Balsamic Vinegar: History and Recipes
A Culinary Holy Trinity
In the culinary arts, there are several trios of foods that work so perfectly together, are so magical and heavenly, that they are referred to as “the trinity.” Cajun cooking regards onions, bell peppers, and celery as such. Spanish cooks could not create paella without the sofrito of onion, garlic, and tomatoes. The French mirepoix of carrots, celery, and onions is legendary.
Italians have a different trinity—the region of Emilia-Romagna produces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prosciutto di Parma, and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (balsamic vinegar of Modena).
Don't Be Fooled: Two Types of Basalmics
There are two balsamic vinegars and they are akin in name only. First, there is the balsamic that you purchase at your local grocery store; it’s on the shelf next to the apple cider vinegar and olive oils. We use it in salad dressings, we serve it as a dip for crusty slices of baguette and when feeling particularly artsy, we create a rich, thick reduction to drizzle on steaks and grilled vegetables and perhaps even vanilla gelato. This balsamic is relatively inexpensive. It might be composed of up to 80 percent red wine vinegar and be aged as little as 60 days. It is not the subject of this article.
Then, there is the true balsamic, the one which has been aged a minimum of 12 years and is made of 100 percent must (the skins, seeds, and juice of grapes that have been pressed for the making of wine).
Balsamic vinegar, aceto balsamico, is a loaded name. It implies a precious substance, a spice, an aromatic plant, a perfume, a medicine, a cordial—in other words, an exceptional vinegar with all of those attributes. But it is not vinegar, and it is not produced in the same way, even though in the early stages of its manufacture a vinegar mother may or may not be used. The genuine product, aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, is a dense, aromatic condiment.— Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley [Oxford University Press: New York] 2007
Going Back to Roman Times
Virgil (70 B.C. to 17 B.C.) spoke of balsamic in the first book of Georgics:
Many things too go better in the cool night,
or when, at first light, Dawn wets the Earth with dew...
One stays awake by the late blaze of a winter fire,
and sharpens torches with a keen knife, while 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.
Fast-forward 1,000 years. A story was told that in 1046, when Henry III was to be coronated as the Holy Roman Emperor, the journey from his home in Bavaria to Rome brought him to Modena, in the Emilia-Romagna region. By air travel, the distance between the two cities is a mere 200 miles, but in the 11th century, Modena would have been more than a quick rest stop. As the new to-be-crowned emperor, Henry was courted, he was wined and dined, and the Countess Matilde di Canossa, the wife of the powerful lord of the region, presented Henry a special gift—a silver cask of balsamic vinegar. This event was described by the monk Donzio of Canossa in his poem Acta Comitissae Mathildis or Vita Mathildis
Five Centuries of the Este Dynasty
The House of Este was an Italian dynasty whose realm spanned more than five centuries; it extended as far north as England and as far east as Bavaria. In 1747 the household inventory of Duke Cesare d’Este was recorded and among the many treasures was listed “balsamic vinegar” (the first time that adjective appeared in print). This balsamic was important but not because it was something new and innovative (by the 18th-century balsam had already been in use for 1,000 years or more). Balsamic was highly prized because its creation is time-consuming and exacting. Wood-aged vinegar was a balsam, a soothing tonic and it was thought to be a cure for everything from scratchy throats to the plague.
Eventually, the Este dynasty toppled (as all dynasties ultimately do). Ercole II of Este escaped Napolean’s troops and took refuge in Venice. The palace was stripped of its riches and the city coffers were emptied by the French occupiers. Balsamic, once treasured as a family tradition, passed down from generation to generation, became nothing more than a commodity. Like a faux Rolex, knock-offs of Modena balsamic were produced.
Countless families created their own balsamics. Family vineyards were tended, grapes harvested, the must produced and transferred to wooden casks. Each family had their own treasured recipe, vintages initiated at the birth of a child were often held until that heir married and had a family of his own.
Near the end of the 18th century, a Hungarian agronomist Ludwig Mitterpacher von Mitterburg wrote “Elements of Agriculture,” devoting one entire chapter to the production of balsamic vinegar.
A Global Phenomenon
Balsamic remained little known outside of Italy until the 1980s. Gastronomy was becoming less regional and more global. More tourists were exploring Italia and likewise, Italian chefs were migrating to other parts of the globe, in particular, the United States.
How Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Is Made
- Only white Trebbiano and red Lambrusco grapes are used, sorted by a de-stemming machine (diraspatrice).
- The sugars in the juice will begin to convert to alcohol, so cooking must begin immediately; the juice is cooked (not boiled) for 24 hours and is reduced 50 percent to a thick syrup, cotto moto.
- The cotto moto is further cooked to caramelize it, adding flavor. At this point, the juice is concentrated to about 30 percent dissolved sugars. A saccharometer is used to measure the sugar content.
- This reduced cotto moto is then transferred to a large barrel (badessa) where fermentation begins.
- The barrels are located in the attic where seasonal changes will contribute to the maturation of the cotto moto.
- The fermentation changes the thickened juice to a vinegar. When the correct level of acidity is reached, the liquid is transferred to the first of 5 to 7 barrels (batteria). Each barrel is sequentially smaller than the one before it and is made of a different wood (oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, and acacia are used).
- Aging takes a minimum of 12 years
Risotto With Pumpkin Cream, Balsamic, and Hazelnuts
Today in Modena, Italy, there is a consortium that oversees the production of Modena balsamic and ensures that promoted, its quality and purity are protected, and its production is held to the highest standards.
Licia Cagnoni has developed a host of recipes that use Modena balsamic not as an afterthought but as an integral component of the meal. Her risotto with pumpkin, balsamic, and hazelnuts offers an explosion of flavors. The pumpkin and vegetable broth create a sweet, creamy base, Parmigiano Reggiano (also from the region) and butter lend a nutty-salty richness, and the final drizzle of Modena balsamic gives brilliant color and dramatic pops of velvety sweet-tangy-oaky flavor.
First, a confession—I don't drink, so I cannot testify to the merits of this cocktail. However, it looks pretty, doesn't it? Just six drops of balsamic are used to flavor and color this after-dinner drink of brandy and cognac. Cheers.
Strawberry Balsamic Mousse
Annemarie is an Italian-American girl who loves fresh foods, local ingredients, and all sorts of comfort foods. With her blog Just a Little Bit of Bacon, she shares her Italian-heritage foods with a New England spin. Her strawberry mousse features mascarpone and ricotta cheeses (does it get any more Italian than that?) with strawberries that are simmered to concentrate their flavors and reduce the juices to a syrupy liquid. The crowning touch is a drizzle of best-of-the-best balsamic vinegar.
© 2020 Linda Lum