When acetic bacteria is introduced to wine or cider, and exposed to air, the mother culture will eat the alcohol, and convert it to acid. The result is vinegar, a delicious and versatile ingredient that has been with us as long as there has been wine.
Vinegar is one of the oldest fermented products known to man. The word vinegar comes from the French words for wine, “vin”, and “aigre”, meaning sour, which in turn came from the Latin “vinum acer”. Vinegar in Italy is named “aceto” for the aerobic bacteria that produces vinegar rather for the wine from which it is made. The Babylonians were making vinegar as early as 5000 B.C. Hippocrates recommended vinegar for its medicinal benefits as early as the 5th Century, B.C. “Balsamico” derives its name from the word “balm” (rooted in the Latin balsalum), which refers to an aromatic odor/resin, a healing or soothing medicine or aromatic, a medicinal substance possessing a spicy fragrance as well as stimulant qualities. (It has nothing to do with balsa wood). It is also reported to have been used as an aphrodisiac, a gargle, and tonic, in addition to its use as an air purifier against the Black Plague. Written records mentioning special vinegars made in the town of Modena (a historic town west of Bologna) and long aging in wood barrels date to the 11th century. It appears, however, that the first Balsamic was preserved/barreled by the Este Family in the Hodgna region around 1300. The earliest written recordings of Balsamic date back to 1747, where it is mentioned in the vintage books and sale records of the Este Family. By the 19th century, heads of state knew Archduke Francesco Tu for his “aceto del duca”, which he gave as a symbol of friendship.
If you decide to give balsamic as a gift, you’re in royal company - Count Boniface of Modena presented a barrel as a gift to Emperor Henry III of the Holy Roman Empire. In those days, balsamic was consumed primarily as a drink or a digestif…it was kept in the family, passed from generation to generation, as it aged. New barrels were started at birth, and given away at weddings.
Condiment is the best term for traditionally made balsamic vinegar, known in Italy as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. It seems a shame to call it vinegar, for the process is quite different from that of making conventional wine vinegars. Nonetheless, it does go through an acetification process, and strictly speaking, is vinegar. In the simplest terms, its making can be described as a long fermentation process that begins with grape must, the skin and pulp of fresh grapes, condensed by simmering it gently over an open fire for hours. It is then aged in a series of barrels of a variety of woods in light, airy attics for at least twelve years. The concentration in cooking and the evaporative aging process result in thick, sweet vinegar. This age-old technique yields a singular product, that once tasted cannot be confused with any other.
Burton Anderson, in his book “Treasures of the Italian Table”, mentions that balsamics were being graded as early as the mid-16th century: “da agresto” (sour), to “per cucina” (for cooking), to “da tavola” (for the table), to “per gentiluomini” (for gentlemen)…the latter is a key to understanding the roots of balsamic. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale has always been in short supply; it was never meant for serious commerce; it was revered, crafted and cared for primarily by “gentiluomini”, the heads of noble families. Realistically, who else could have afforded to invest the kind of time and space in a vinegar that at best was sipped only on special occasions, and was usually started with the idea that one’s children and grandchildren might live to taste it (in those days a 50-year old vinegar would often outlive the man who made it). Until 1976, balsamic vinegar was an obscure condiment made at home by wealthy families in the Emilia-Romagna region of north central Italy. Today balsamic is the best-selling vinegar in America, accounting for 45% of all supermarket vinegar sales. Intoxicated by its big, sweet, caramel flavor, Americans mix it in salad dressings; drizzle it on meat, fish, and vegetables; and add it to sauces, soups, and desserts. Of course, one of this popularity would have been possible if balsamic vinegar had remained a $100-an-ounce extravagance.
There are six components to make balsamic: the region, the grapes, the climate, the barrels, the passion…and the patience.
Balsamic vinegar is unique among traditional Western vinegars, because it does not start out as wine, but rather as unfermented grape “must”, slowly cooked down until it is a thick, rich, slightly sweet liquid. Active vinegar culture is added, usually vinegar from a much older batch, and then begins the unique aging process that involves several different woods and many years’ time.
The two main types of balsamic are “tradizionale”, which can require decades of aging and is expensive ($1-200 per 3.5 oz.), and “industriale”, or commercial, which is young balsamic blended with older batches to create a balsamic product that is far more affordable, and can be used more extensively in the kitchen, and on the table.
Italians refer to real balsamic vinegar as “tradizionale”, in contrast to the “industriale” vinegar commonly found on supermarket shelves. Balsamic vinegar is the trendy condiment of choice for everything from salad dressings to sauces. Balsamic vinegar is more popular in America than Italy - and balsamic is not Italy’s answer to soy sauce.
Today, no other food or condiment available is more confusing and misunderstood than balsamic vinegar. This is even more interesting when one considers that balsamic vinegar is but a small portion of the $200 million American vinegar market. The reason for the confusion is eminently understandable: the real stuff is so sublime in its complex sensory qualities that it has spawned a massive number of imitators.
A glance at the typical vinegar section of a gourmet retailer will reveal fancy bottles replete with ribbons, sealing wax and pictures (real or imagined) of Contessas and Ducs. All this elaborate packaging suggests authenticity and, somehow, gives the impression that this particular product is genuine and traditional.
So how can one tell the difference? One test is the label. The term “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” indicate a style, but nor its origin. Commercial balsamic produced in Italy must bear a license number followed by a tow-letter code for the providing where it has been made. Thus, every bottle of Modena brand has the code age 18/mo, which does nor indicate. An age of 18 months, but its license is age 18, and it is made in Modena. If their age no letters following the age number, the bottle has been purchasing from different producer. The absence of an age number means this vinegar is probably purchased in bulk and bottled in the U.S.
However, the ultimate test is tasting. Traditional balsamic is a viscous dark brown, with a complex taste not unlike vintage port, except with an acid undertone rather than one of alcohol. Traditional balsamics have an incredibly rich flavor, and an almost syrupy texture. Its flavor is intense, a perfectly calibrated starburst of sweet and sour that starts as a tiny tingle at the tip of the tongue, and slowly expands into a mouth-filling, smooth, sensuous sweetness. The sourness is gentle, comforting, supportive, but never intrusive…it hints of plums, black grapes, wild currants, vanilla and a touch of oak.
Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena Reggio (Emilia - Romagna) is produced from the cooked/filtered must (the juice of crushed grapes) take from the late-harvest Trebbliano grapes only. The must is aged in five different types of wooden casks for a minimum of 12 years.
“The product of an elaborate, prolonged, inspired handiwork or, as some might say, a miracle of man,” is how Burton Anderson describes aceto balsamico tradizionale in Tresures of the Italian Table. With a lustrous mahogany hue and velvety smooth flavors redolent of plums and cherries (often with a smoky or spicy tang on the finish), traditional balsamic is made in only two places in Italy – the northern Italian provinces of Modena, and Reggio nell’Emilia.
In order to bear the name aceto balsamico tradizionale, every aspect of its creation, from grape to bottle, is carefully regulated by DOP standards. This vinegar undergoes a lengthy transformation, starting an unfermented juice pressed from indigenous white Trabbiano grapes (although Lambrusco and other varietals are sometimes used), which is simmered in large, copper cauldrons for about 24 to 42 hours. This concentrated syrup, known as mosto cotto, is aged in series of five barrels of varying sizes and types of wood known as batteria (the wood can range from acacia, cherry, oak, chestnut, mulberry, ash, and sometimes juniper). Fitted with large openings that are covered with loosely woven fabric, which allow oxygen to concentrated the must, the five barrels of a batteria range from large to small, reflecting the concentration and length of time the vinegar has been reducing.
During the minimum 12 years DOP balsamic must age, fluctuations in temperature improve the quality of the vinegar, so the barrels are kept in upper attic spaces, or in a shed-like room known as an acetaia. It is important to understand that balsamic doesn’t “age” in the same way wine does. Where a single vintage of wine ages in barrels and bottles, a balsamic’s age refers to the length of time the veingar maker, or acetaio, has worked with a blend; not the age of the contents in a bottle.
For instance, as the vinegar becomes concentrated over time, the content of each barrel must be replenished (topped up) to prevent solidification. This task begins with the smallest and most concentrated barrel in the batteria being filled with younger vinegar from the next largest barrel, and so on, down the line to the largest barrel, which is the youngest and the least concentrated. This brrel is filled with an addition of freshly cooked must. The process is repeated yearly, until the contents of the smallest barrel reach the desired age and flavor. These barrels hold the prize; it is this vinegar that goes to market – but only if it passes rigorous taste and purity tests.
To keep competition fair, each producer is allotted a specific number of bottles of aceto balsamico tradizionale that they can sell, which is indicated by a numbered tag around the bottle’s neck. Bottles from Modena are characteristically bulb-shaped, while bottles used in Reggio nell’Emilia are bell-shaped. Colored caps designate age: a red cap denotes a vinegar aged at least twelve years, while a gold gap honors a vinegar of twenty-five years or more (known respectfully as il patriarca).
The technique for rendering balsamic has been developed over hundreds of years. But the nouvelle cuisine craze that dominated the culinary scene in the 1980s was a catalyst for curious chefs to experiment with rare ad exotic ingredients. The novelty, complex flavors and versatility of aceto balsamico made it an overnight success. The public’s love for the sweet and tart vinegar seemed insatiable, creating a demand that aceto balsamico tradizionale – being costly, limited in production and intended for selective use in the kitchen – couldn’t meet. This generated a huge market for industrialized, inexpensive copies, that were no more than grape must mixed with cider or red wine vinegar, sugar and artificial coloring.
Once a rare condiment scarcely known even to Italians outside of its place of origin, balsamic vinegar is now a staple in American pantries. From inexpensive, mass-produced supermarket varieties to expensive artisanal vinegars, variations of non-DOP balsamic have completely infiltrated American cuisine.
Seeing the increased interest in affordable balsamic as a niche in the market, and in reaction to the mass production of inferior vinegars, some acetai began to develop vinegars that follow, albeit loosely, many of the canons of aceto balsamico tradizionale. To increase volume and lower costs without sacrificing quality, they experimented with different wood varieties, decreased the number of barrels in the batteria, and aged the vinegar or less than the prescribed twelve-ear minimum. These vinegars, known as aceto balsamico condimento – typically exported as Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, although some are produced outside of Modena or Reggio nell’Emilia – range in quality from exceptional to ordinary.
Commercial balsamic vinegar is produced from grapes crushed, matured by slow acetification, but not fermented. The grapes are condensed through a process of heating, then aged for a long time in a series of casks of different woods without the addition of other aromatic substances. Its color is deep, shiny brown with a special density in the form of a runny syrup, its characteristic perfume is complex and penetrating, showing a pleasant and harmonious acidity, and its sharp sweet flavor is full, sapid, and velvety, in balance with its aroma. Commercial balsamic is typically a combination of two ingredients: cooked or concentrated must made from grapes of the local region. The grade uses are these typical of Emilia Romagna: Lambrusco of Sorbara, Salmino of S. Croce, Trebbiano, Ancellotta, and red wine vinegar. The quality of commercial balsamic vinegar is determined by the quality/quantity of must in the product, which can be measured by lab tests. In Italy balsamic vinegar is not just vinegar -- it is a symbol of sophistication, a good investment, and a way of life. You would buy Napoleon for quality, reliability, and consistency.
The precise method of making balsamic vinegar is difficult to ascertain. “Those that know, don’t say, and those that say, don’t know” - there are many “secret” recipes. However, the basic process can be deter-mined from various literary sources, and our visits to vinegar works of family-run vinegar makers in Italy.
Each vinegar maker has his/her own blend. One of the “secrets” of balsamic’s sweetness is that the grapes are left on the vine as long as possible, in order to bring up the level of natural sugars.
Balsamic vinegar comes only from several types of grapes, including red Lambrusco (used extensively on the Emilian plains), white Spergola and Occhio di Gatta, and/or Berzemino grapes. Our packer uses Lambrusco/Trebbiano grape “must”. The Trebbiano di Spagna (white) is generally preferred since it matures fully, and delivers a sweet juice. Balsamic vinegar goes through two steps of transformation: alcoholic fermentation and acetic oxidation. When the grapes are harvested, some look like raisins hanging off the vines in the autumn sun. The grapes are pressed, cooked, and dried, to yield a thick sweet mass known as “must”. After pressing, the fresh “must” is brought to the acetaia, poured into open copper kettles, then cooked down until it is noticeable thicker than wine, but still thinner in texture than maple syrup.
In the past, the cooking was done in copper vats over wood fires, but today most producers use stainless steel over an open gas flame. While copper’s natural properties enhance the release of sugars, the stainless steel provides a more even cooking surface. A thermostat controls the temperature so that the grapes will not burn, bur slowly condense and concentrate the natural sugars. The first thirty minutes, they cook at 195° to 200°F, and then the temperature is lowered to 175° to 185°F for 24 to 36 hours. The vats are open to induce evaporation and reduction of the grape must; after at least 24 hours it will be half of the original volume and have a sugar content of 20 to 24 percent.
Following this lengthy cooking period, the mixture is left in a large wooden cask for a couple of months to begin its fermentation. The first metabolic changes occur as the sugar transforms into alcohol, precipitated by natural yeasts in the grapes. This is followed by an oxidation by acetobacters that changes the alcohol into acetic acid and turns the must to vinegar. Once this process has begun, the mixture can be put into the battery of wood barrels. As it ages, the acetic acids and alcohol diminish, yet the taste remains lively and mellow at the same time.
A slow alcoholic fermentation is desired, and the climate helps to control that. In the winter moths that follow, the mixture has a chance to settle, allowing the solid particles to form and thus clarify the vinegar. In the next and subsequent summers, as the air heats up, so does the fermentation activity, only to slow down and rest in the cooler months. The optimum exposure to the elements has been found to be in uninsulated attics. With the barrels open to the air, evaporation continues the reduction and concentration processes. Because it is made from “must”, not wine, Aceto Balsamic, is not strictly wine vinegar.
The new alcohol is then added to aged vinegar casks, formerly used for balsamic vinegar production. It is first added to a large barrel that already contains balsamic vinegar. Science’s role was to identify the correct bacteria that produces the best flavor. This bacterium turned out to be “acetobacter acetic”, also known as the “mother”. On the top of the vinegar, a “mother” develops which is removed and washed every few years to eliminate any unwanted accumulations. After the alcohol has been acidified, it is then transferred to a different barrel - this juice is filtered through cloth, placed in large copper pots, and cooked slowly until it is condensed down to about two-thirds of the original content, after cooling, it is put into large barrels of Slavonian oak or chestnut for more than one year…this is where the alcoholic fermentation takes place.
The key to developing fine balsamic vinegar is found in the “batteria”, the succession of progressively smaller barrels made from various woods. Each barrel is composed of special woods that contribute their subtle flavors to the product. There may be from six to twelve (or more) different barrels through which the vinegar will pass during its gradual development. There is disagreement among producers as to the order of the wood, as well as the number of types employed. A typical batteria will pass through barrels of diminishing sizes of chestnut, oak, cherry, locust, ash, mulberry, and juniper. The barrels are important.
Young barrels are often rubbed with new vinegar to help season them. Old barrels that begin to break down are often encased in newly built barrels. Oak (from Croatia/Slavonia) and chestnut (from Alto Veneto) are used to impart tannins that color the vinegar. Italian acacia, ash and wild cherry woods are used to add a sweet and delicate aroma. The most precious woods and most difficult to find, are juniper and mulberry, which improve the aroma and density of the product. The aromatic woods are used at the beginning, and the hard woods at the end of the process. Preferences in wood vary from producer to producer.
It takes a year just to prepare new barrels for the production of aceto balsamico. First they are filled with boiling salted water and left for two days to remove the tannin from the woods. The saltwater is rinsed away, and the barrel filled again with boiling wine vinegar. The barrels are then emptied and filled with wine that will turn to wine vinegar over the year that it remains in the barrel. This fermentation process inoculates the wood with the acetobacter necessary to acetify the cooked must when it is finally added. The barrel is once again rinsed with wine vinegar and placed in the attic, ready to accept the cooked grape must that will become balsamic vinegar. The barrels are never again completely filled or emptied, and at least 25 percent of the barrel is left unfilled for air space.
During the process, extensive evaporation occurs, leaving vinegar with a consistency of syrup. Just as barrel aging develops the color/flavor/identity of a fine wine, each of these woods contributes its character to the flavor of the vinegar. According to ministerial decrees, it is illegal to print the age of the vinegar on the label. Ultimately, it is the taste, not the age that determines the quality of balsamic vinegar.
What went in as an acidic equivalent to a lump of coal comes out a vinegar diamond. As you age/care for the balsamic, it evaporates. If you start with 100 liters of new vinegar, by the end of 12 years, you will have lost 80-85% to the atmosphere. Traditional balsamic must spend at least 12 years in small barrels before the conzorio will judge it a “traditional”. This, perhaps, accounts for why you don’t see a lot of start-up balsamic companies around. Every year, each barrel is topped off from the next larger one and the larger is replenished with new cooked must. The topping up process is called “rincalzo”. It is the quality and concentration of the “must”. The shuttling from cask to cask is called “traverso” (“tra” means between, “vasi” means barrels).
The production of Napoleon 4-star quality balsamic vinegar of Modena uses a blend of wine vinegar, and “must”. The “must” is used for two separate processes:
- The sugar which is present in the must is transformed to alcohol which in turn is fermented into vinegar;
- The must is used directly, without further fermentation, in the product.
The blending of these processes creates balsamic vinegar - the result is a dense, dark nectar that is either sipped as an aperitif, or a digestive by the spoonful; it can be added to sauces for use in finishing a roast/vegetable/seafood dish, or dip in wedges of parmigiano reggiano, or strawberries. Balsamic vinegar does not require any special storage; however, it is recommended that it be stored in a cool, dark place. Over the years, the barrels build up deposits. These deposits, called “unificahow” (or “parimony”) are so valuable that when the barrel begins to deteriorate, new wood is built up in a process called “divestment”.
Balsamic Glaze (Glassa Balsamica)
Balsamic glaze is a reduction of Balsamic Vinegar. It has both a unique sweet/tart flavor, with a deep, rich color. It is conveniently offered in a plastic, non-drip, squeeze bottle which makes plate decoration and garnishing meals especially simple, but professional.
Balsamic glaze can be offered as a glaze/sauce – and avoid any burned reduction. It offers the perfect balance of flavor/texture. It can be considered a busy chef’s best friend.
Balsamic glaze complements fish, meat, pasta, and poultry – as well as desserts (like fresh berries and ice cream) and grilled vegetables.
An excellent way to educate your clientele about the fundamentals of balsamic vinegar is to show the process graphically. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a chart that details the life of the product can do more to illuminate the buyer than anything you can say. It shows the progression of the vinegar from the fermentation stage to the initial large aging barrels to the final set of barrels where the vinegar will spend most of its life. There are usually a set of 5-6 barrels, decreasing in size and in different woods (acacia/cherry/chestnut/oak), but these vary by producer…then display a traditional balsamic barrel so your customers can see/understand the process. You will remove some of the mystery, and greatly increase the romance by showing what a complicated/painstaking process it is. 800 gallons of grape must yield about 30 gallons of balsamic vinegar.
Inexpensive commercial varieties of balsamic are best used in salad dressings and cooking, to add flavor to soups and stews. Consider it a splendid seasoning. The mid-range balsamics are best for cooked foods at the end to enhance flavor as on grilled meats/vegetables (balsamic vinegar is a great substitute foe Marsala with veal scaloppini/saltimbocca), or used with good olive oil as a dip for bread on the table. Olive oil & balsamic vinaigrette is outstanding with lobsters and scallops, globe artichokes and asparagus. The upper-end types, which can be very pricey, are best used sparingly - drops transform strawberries into four-star desserts.
Ten other ways to serve balsamic vinegar:
- Splash over fresh berries
- Stir into a sweet sauce served with pork
- Pour over Brie
- Mix with fresh spinach
- Toss with tomatoes, onions, and mozzarella chunks
- Sizzle in scallops
- Make into a marinade for chicken or duck
- Drizzle over vanilla ice cream
- Blend with pasta al dente
- Sprinkle atop crisp grilled vegetables
To taste, put drops on the back of your hand - examine the color/viscosity, smell the aroma, then taste the product. The color should be dark brown, full of light and warmth. The density should be fluid, but thick. The aroma should be complex. With tones of grapes, wood flavors, and a taste of wine. The flavor should be rich, sweet and sour, all perfectly proportionate.
Since aceto balsamic is made in light, and exposed to different temperatures, these elements will not necessarily damage it in storage, but still the best conditions are a cool, dark cupboard. Keep the bottle tightly closed.
Use balsamic as you would use wine vinegar, in salads, as a marinade, with sauces. Treat it as a condiment, with meat/pasta/vegetables. In general, don’t use it in desserts.
Balsamic vinegar adds flavor, but no fat, and few calories. Balsamic vinegar can be featured in the promotion of foods from the region of Emilia-Romagna, as parmigano / prosciutto, and pastas…cross-merchandising it with these wonderfully satisfying foods, and putting it into a regional context, makes selling more fun and profitable. A small amount of balsamic vinegar complements roasted vegetables or carmarised onions, and provide depth to dishes than use tomatoes. In bring interest to mild foods like chicken, fish or mushrooms, and works well in marinara.
Infused balsamics are the latest addition to the “varieties” of balsamic vinegar – infused with flavorings, usually fruits, but also spices, herbs, and even jalapeno! Sales of these products have grown but have not reached the level where they rival “pure” balsamic, as a condiment/dressing. Purists assert that another flavor in the vinegar ruins the delicate balance of the natural balsamic vinegar. Sales in the balsamic vinegar category increased 5% in 1999 to $31.5 million, according to panel data from AC Nielson.
Our Napoleon Organic Balsamic Vinegar in the Modena region comes from the concentrated essence of the finest organic grapes of the Ancellotta, Lambrusco, and Trebbiano grapes. Grown in nutrient rich and fertile soil, and cultivated under the guidelines of original agricultural methods, our Napoleon Organic Balsamic Vinegar is certified by Bioagricert, and contains no artificial flavorings, added sulfites, and without the use of pesticides or synthetic herbicides. Our organic Napoleon Balsamic Vinegar is highly aromatic, a variety texture, and has a high balance of being sweet, while tart.
The ingredients and production process of Napoleon White Balsamic are exactly the same as a standard balsamic, but uses a lighter must of grapes that are not cooked, but reduced. It has an intense fragrance, a fruit bouquet, and an agreeably bitter sweet taste. It is recommending especially for fish / poultry, as well as steamed vegetables, fresh salads.