Elisabeth Luard explores the intriguing history of balsamic vinegar and shows how this exceptional condiment can transform any number of dishes
Balsamic, that precious elixir that makes the taste buds sing, is not really a vinegar at all. Unlike other wine vinegars, it’s made not with fermented liquor but with the fresh juice of sweet white grapes. For the rest of its secrets, well, call them the happy conjunction of place, patience and inherited know-how.
It’s no coincidence that three of the world’s great gourmet foods – Parmegiano Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma and aceto balsamico di Modena – share the same birthplace, Emilia Romagna, a lush corner of Italy between Milan and Rome roughly defined as the flood plain of the river Po. Geography and latitude deliver fertile soil, adequate rainfall, sufficient sunshine and a hard-working population with its feet firmly rooted in the soil. The independent peasantry of the Po valley have been taking their goods to market since the days of Imperial Rome, supplying the merchant princes of Bologna, Parma and Modena with hams, cheeses and the grape must that was used as a sweetener in the days before sugar was cheap.
Over the centuries, the thrifty townsfolk observed that these particular goods, when stored under controlled conditions, were capable of transformation into something so pleasing to the palate, so irresistible to the taste buds, that customers scrambled over themselves to acquire them. But while parmesan and prosciutto established a market price, balsamics remained a private pleasure, an heirloom passed from one generation to the next, neither bought nor sold but exchanged only as a gift.
But while parmesan and prosciutto established a market price, balsamics remained a private pleasure, an heirloom passed from one generation to the next, neither bought nor sold but exchanged only as a gift.
The transformation of brash young grape juice to aged balsamic starts with a mosto, the freshly crushed and unfermented juice of sweet Trebbiano grapes cooked in a copper pan over an open fire until it’s the colour of liquid honey and reduced to half its original volume.
After filtering and cooling, the concentrated liquid – at this stage, syrupy and flowery – is transferred to small oak casks containing a little of the vinegar from an earlier batch. The elder vinegar supplies the younger with the bacteria that produce the ‘vinegar mother’, a gloopy fungal mass that converts grape sugar into acetic acid, the source of a vinegar’s sharpness.
The young vinegar is now ready to enter the solera system, moving from one barrel to another in a very particular order. Every year for the next four years, the developing balsamic is transferred via a hole (the original stopper was a smooth river stone) to a smaller cask made of a different wood – mulberry, chestnut, cherry, juniper – in pre-ordained order. Evaporation, a process that concentrates and develops the flavour, is kept at around 20 per cent a year – natural wastage that adds to the price.
Matured to perfection
After four years, a balsamic made by traditional methods earns the right to call itself ‘aceto balsamico di Modena’. At this stage, a vinegar considered promising will be allowed to age in the barrel until it reaches its own degree of perfection, the point at which it’s ready for bottling. Additional smoothness and richness come from further maturity, although not all balsamics are suitable for ageing. For those that are, after 8 to 12 years, a vinegar judged ready for bottling will be presented to Modena’s official Consortium of Vinegar Makers for certification as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Vinegars judged worthy of even more refinement remain in the barrel for as many years as it takes to reach perfection.
A Tradizionale of 20 or 40 years old is capable of exquisite complexity – look for quince, cinnamon, vanilla, hazelnut, liquorice – and a centenarian, the product of a hundred years of family devotion, is truly a dowry fit for a queen. The passage of time alone is not enough, though it certainly helps. Complexity of flavour, a balsamic’s unique selling point, is the product of many vintages. And a 100-year-old balsamic has seen three generations of caretakers, each of whom has put in something of their own. So precious was each family’s balsamic – its value medicinal as well as pleasurable – that it was not until about 40 years ago that the balsamics of Modena began to be traded for money. Until then, the barrels were a treasured possession passed from one generation to another, a gift that couldn’t be bought. Goods that are not traded put themselves beyond price, which is why many young brides used them as an invaluable dowry.
Added complexity was introduced to a batch of vinegars when a bride brought her own barrels of balsamic into the family. Once added to the batteria or barrel stack, the newcomers altered the vinegars’ nature in the same way as each alliance brought vitality to the family gene pool. Most of the makers, including La Vecchia Dispensa, which supplies Fortnum’s with its range of balsamics, remain family enterprises. Companies that produce balsamics as an industrial product are making something different, not to be confused with the true balsamics – the label as well as the price will tell you what to expect. And the taste of a true balsamic will tell you it’s worth every penny.
Keeping it in the family
La Vecchia Dispensa, suppliers of aged balsamic vinegars to Fortnum & Mason, is a family-run acetaia in Castelvetro di Modena, which has been in business for more than 100 years. The vinegar-maker, Marino Tintori, is a former ski instructor who fell in love and married Roberta Pelloni, who was using her own family’s balsamics to conserve vegetables in the traditional way, under oil and vinegar. Her own additions to Fortnum’s range include an elegant translucent balsamic jelly: just right for a summer picnic, with cold roast chicken or a superior pork pie.
La Vecchia’s batteria was laid down three generations ago, with six barrels of aged balsamic brought into the family by Roberta’s great-grandmother on her marriage. Production remains small-scale and local, with the basic raw materials – wood to repair or replace the barrels, and the mosto – sourced close to home – which renews the contents. The barrel-woods are all native to the region, and the Trebbiano grapes pressed for La Vecchia’s mosto come from a vineyard up the road, meaning that the vinegar-maker can keep an eye on the harvest.
Vecchia’s batteria was laid down three generations ago, with six barrels of aged balsamic brought into the family by Roberta’s great-grandmother on her marriage.
La Vecchia’s balsamics are distinguished by a complexity of flavour underlined by a refreshing sharpness. The depth of colour and desirable viscosity comes from age and nothing else. Delicate and robust, they remain true to themselves to the last delicious drop.
White and Green Bean Salad with Balsamic
Two kinds of beans – fresh and dried – make an elegant starter. The soft white beans are the perfect background for an aged balsamic.
Serves 4 as a starter
250g green beans, topped and tailed
4–5 tbsp mild olive oil
1 tbsp young balsamic vinegar (8 or 12 years)
500g canned white haricot beans, drained
2 or 3 spring onions, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Frizzy endive or chicory
Aged balsamic (20 or 40 years)
1 Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, drop in the green beans (cut into short lengths if longer than your little finger) and cook for 3–4 minutes, until tender but still a little crunchy. Drain, then pass them quickly under cold water.
2 Toss with the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper while still warm. Combine with the white beans and onions, pile on to a handful of chicory or endive, and hand round the aged balsamic separately.
Lamb Steaks with a Parmesan Crust
The three great flavours of Emilia Romagna make a crisp little hat for lamb steaks, cooked pink and served with apricots dressed with balsamic.
4 boneless lamb leg steaks (about 250g each)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic (8 or 12 years)
Freshly ground pepper
For the topping:
2 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp finely diced prosciutto
2 tbsp grated parmesan
1 large free-range egg, forked to blend
4 fresh or 6 ready-to-eat dried apricots
Aged balsamic (20 or 40 years)
1 Dry the steaks and arrange in a single layer on a plate. Sprinkle both sides with the oil, balsamic and pepper, cover and leave for an hour or two. Drain the meat, reserving the juices. Mix the topping ingredients with the reserved juices until blended.
2 Heat a heavy frying pan and fry the steaks for 5–6 minutes a side or until the outside is browned but the meat is still softish when you prod it with your finger. Spread each steak with the topping and grill for 4–5 minutes until the crust is golden.
3 Halve or dice the apricots and sear them briefly in the hot pan – you might need a little butter – for just as long as it takes to caramelise the edges without collapsing the flesh.
4 Slice the steaks so each piece is topped with a golden hat and serve with the warm apricots. Hand round the aged balsamic separately.
Balsamic Syllabub with Strawberries and Macaroons (Pictured above)
In the days when handsome heroes fell for rosy-cheeked dairymaids, a syllabub was made
by milking the cow straight into a bucket of sweetened wine – tell that to Health and Safety. Here a young balsamic takes the place of the usual lemon juice.
300ml chilled double cream
150ml white wine
1 tbsp young balsamic (8 or 12 years) vinegar
2 tbsp caster sugar
100g macaroons, roughly crushed
100g small ripe strawberries
1 Make sure the cream and wine are at room temperature. Whisk the cream until it begins to hold its shape – don’t overwhip or it will turn to butter. Slowly whisk in the wine, balsamic and sugar.
2 Divide the crushed macaroons (save a little for the topping) between 4 long sundae glasses, or anything pretty and suitable. Cover with the strawberries (save 4 of the best), and top with the syllabub. Finish each glassful with a sprinkle of the reserved macaroons, a sliced-up strawberry and just a drop or two of a 100-year-old balsamic (or any good aged balsamic).
MORE BALSAMIC USES
A venerable balsamic – more than 20 years old – shouldn’t be cooked at all, which is not to say it can’t be used in cooking. High heat ruins the flavour but warmth suits it well, which is why the aristocrats of Emilia Romagna sip their prized vinegars from the back of the hand, allowing the warmth of the skin to release the fragrance. Traditionalists take their balsamics with a glass of prosecco and flakes of parmesan and nothing else. ‘Other traditional uses,’ says Simone, son of La Vecchia Dispensa’s vinegar-maker, ‘are to pour it on almond cake, sprinkle a few drops on gnocchi, or add it to a plain risotto – push a few holes in the rice, drop in a little aged balsamic, and mix it in.’
Serve an 8-year-old balsamic with anything frittered or fried: courgettes, aubergines, squid, shrimp, artichokes a la romana, tomatoes roasted with thyme.
Sip a 12-year-old balsamic, smooth and subtle but still pleasantly sharp, from a small glass as a digestif – something delicious to settle the stomach – with a strawberry as a chaser.
Hand round a 20-year-old balsamic to sprinkle over prosciutto served in the traditional way, each translucent ruby slice wrapped loosely round its own breadstick.
Treat your 100-year-old balsamic as you would a honeyed grandée of the wine-cellar – Château d’Yquem or a venerable wine of Tokay – as something so perfect it stands alone. And yet even perfection needs a partner. Natural affinities? Foie gras, of course; fillet steak cooked rare; Iberico ham carved from the bone; vanilla ice cream of the best possible quality; fraises de bois in thick yellow Normandy cream; something chocolatey – reine de saba, a buttery chocolate cake made with almonds.
For a vinaigrette to dress a salad, combine a young balsamic – 8 to 12 years old – with a gentle extra virgin olive oil in the proportions of 1 part vinegar to 4 parts oil. No pepper, no salt.
As a dip for the first slender green stalks of English asparagus, throw expense to the winds and marry a 40-year-old balsamic to Colonna Granverde lemon oil. As a scooping-oil for bread, pair a delicate 20-year-old with a very delicate extra virgin oil with minimum leafiness – nothing too robust: peppery oils do balsamic no favours.
A young balsamic - 8-12 years old - can stand the heat. Splash it into the tin after roasting a bird, add stock or a splash of well-brewed Lapsang, scrape in all the sticky bits, and stir in a spoonful of redcurrant jelly. As a little sauce for a steak, de-glaze the pan as above and stir in a knob of butter, no jelly.
Pears and parmesan go wonderfully well with a 100 year old balsamic - but don’t tell the purists.
In a recipe which calls for dried fruit - Dundee cake, tea-bread, panettone, rum-and-raisin ice cream, bread-and-butter pud - plump up the raisins in a 8 or a 12 year old balsamic before adding them to the mixture.
Add one drop of a 20 or 40 year old balsamic to a summer Pimms and give it a stir – it’ll taste wonderful but no one will know quite why.
As a summer refresher, stir a teaspoon of a young balsamic - 8 or 12 year - into a long glass of well-iced fizzy water.