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How Sweet It Is
(Real Balsamic Vinegar is a Far Cry
from What You’ve Come to Expect)

adapted from an article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, January 23, 2000

The amber colored liquid that Ermes Malpighi poured from the small, time–worn wooden barrel was so thick and concentrated that it took a good quarter of a minute for it to flow like some precious sap into the ceramic spoon I held in my hand. As we stood in the chilly attic acetaia, on the outskirts of Modena in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region where he ages his astonising balsamic vinegars, the master balsamic maker motioned me to taste the rare aceto balsamico traditionale made in 1880 by his grandfather. It’s flavor blossomed in my mouth: luscious, stunningly complex, reminiscent of old port and berries with suggestions of caramel and wood — a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness. I felt as though every cell in my body were vibrating. It was an experience that forever changed my expectations of what a balsamic vinegar should be. It was how I, a person of modest means, came to routinely invest $150 for the divine stuff — about 3 1/2 ounces of extra vecchio balsamic vinegar.

This elixir had nothing to do with what I knew to be balsamic, the sweet, inexpensive, factory–made vinegar that has become ubiquitous in America. Malpighi’s seemed not to be a vinegar at all, but rather a rare essence of extraordinary richness and finesse. The reason for it’s great expense lies in how it is made, a process that dates back 1,000 years and that has been passed down through generations of families like Malpighi’s in the northern Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. A concentrate of fresh juice from wine grapes is fermented and mellowed for years in progressively smaller wooden barrels made of different woods — chestnut, oak, cherry, ash, mulberry, juniper, chestnut — each of imparting its own flavor.

It takes about 200 pounds of grapes to yield about 4 cups of 25–year–old balsamic. This basic method is open to many variables, from the age of the barrels to the bacteria in the air surrounding Modena and neighboring Reggio Emilia that helps give their balsamic vinegar its distinctive flavor, to the skill and sensibilities of the artisan making it. Balsamic vinegars that have been approved by consortiums in Modena or Reggio Emilia have met strict criteria and are your assurance of getting the real thing. The bottles bear a consortium seal and the words “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” or “de Emilia.” The word vecchio indicates it has been aged at least 12 years, making the price less dear at about $75 for 3 1/2 ounces. The higher–end extra vecchio is aged at least 25 years and is noticably more unctuous and complex.

That week, I tasted myriad artisanal balsamics — each with their own special character — in acetaias hidden in unassuming looking barns and grand mansions alike. In local restaurants, I came to understand its culinary uses. The great balsamics are never cooked; they are used like an exquisite ornament to adorn simple foods. Like a shaved truffle, a balsamic vinegar seems to complete the dish, intensifying the flavor of whatever it touches. In Italy, I savored fine balsamic vinegars drizzled over grilled trout and fried fish, on zabaglione, over risottos and roasted potatoes and — as the ultimate hors d’oeuvre — over small chunks of the region’s great young Parmigiano Reggianos. I also indulged in an intoxicating midnight snack of the local cherries dipped in balsamic vinegar, and another time, a fine vanilla ice cream drizzled with the ruby liquid — a transcendant experience.

Once home, I began to use balsamic to forge quick, sublime meals for myself and friends, including a fabulous dessert of Caramelized Pears with Long–Aged Balsamic Vinegar. To me, artisanal balsamics are really a bargain. What other scant teaspoon of food can so easily transform a dish? It is so concentrated that 3/4 teaspoon is a luxurious serving; a bottle, while costly, lasts a long time. If I had only one ingredient to rely on in cooking — next to olive oil and sea salt — it would be this wonderful elixir.

Click the image to read a companion recipe, Caramelized Pears with or without Long–Aged Balsamic Vinegar