If you asked anyone to list ten typical Italian ingredients, it would be safe to say that Balsamic Vinegar would probably be mentioned by most of them, and there is a good reason for this. Balsamic vinegar, or as it was once known Siroppo Acetoso, has been known throughout Italy since the middle ages. These medievil Siroppo Acetoso were simple things, just a syrup which was naturally fermented into a vinegar, which at the time was not used a culinary ingredient but was sold as a medical preparation. Noble families, like the d'Estes, proudly owned their own acetaia, a loft where they fermented the own Siroppo. In the 17th century, aristocratic circles in Modena began discussing a tincture described as Balsamico, which was said to have such rejuvenating powers that it could bring the dead back to life. As we now know, Balsamic Vinegar does not quite live up to this reputation, but the description is aiming in the right direction. Anyone who has had the pleasure of tasting a genuine Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale with its thick, rich harmonies of sweetness, sourness, velvety smoothness and piquancy, can well understand how just a few drops of Balsamic can bring even the most lifeless ingredients "back to life".
But why is Balsamic so different to other vinegars . . . ? Well why in most vinegars the raw ingredients ae either red or white wine, the first stage of making Balsamic Vinegar is making a must from white Trebbiano grapes from Modena and. Reggio Emilia. The must is gently heated up and concentrated, until it reduces down to a thick brown, sticky, syrup. This grape juice is then mixed with old wine vinegar to start the fermentation process. Balsamic vinegar, un-like other vinegars, is not made in cool, temperature controlled cellars, but in creaking, old lofts, which are ice cold in winter, stifling hot in summer and damp during the spring rains and autumn mists. Balsamic vinegar needs these unfavorable climatic conditions to keep reducing its volume (10 gallons of must will produce only a few pints of Balsamic Vinegar), to mature and to develop its characteristic flavours. It takes about three years to complete its two fermentations. The first fermentation is whe the sugar in the must is turned into alcohol. Onl when tha process has been completed can the vinegars natural bacteria convert the alcohol to vinegar.
But even this second fermentation is just the beginning for Balsamic Vinegar. Once this three year fermentation sequence has finished the Balsamic must then be matured, for atleast 12 years but sometimes upto 30 or even 50 years. In the vinegar loft, which is known as a acetaia, the will always be a whole row of different-sized barrels made from various woods, each of which impart their own flavour and character into the vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is not matured in a single barrel, it is transferred from one barrel to another during its maturation period. The mature Balsamic Vinegar is drawn off in small portions from the oldest barrel, then quantity removed from this barrel is replaced by a the same quantity from a the second oldest barrel, which is replaced by the same quantity from the third oldest barrel, and so on. The sediment and mothe found in the barrels, which are sometimes very, very old, are the most treasured possessions of the producers of balsamic vinegar, but the wood of the barrels also plays an important part. Ash and Oak are used for the smallest barrels, chestnut and cherry are used for the middle sized barrels, and the younger vinegars are best matured in Mulberry. Every producer has an opinion on the subject of the ingredients added to the maturing Balsamic, but it is generally a selection of, or all of, cinnamon, cloves, mace, coriander, and liquorice.
Nowadays Balsamic vinegar is also made in factories which can sometimes achieve reasonable results, but never as good as the artisan vinegars of Modena. These mass produced Balsamic vinegars are cheape to produce but generally lack the flavour, character and quality of proper Balsamic vinegar. Very cheap Balsamic vinegars should be avoided, as the will probably be little more than regular wine vinegar with a few spices and some caramel added for colour.
Genuine Balsamic vinegar can be recognised by it's price, it's small often ornate bottles and by the official declaration Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. The consortium in Modena has been in existence since 1987 and has 270 members who are permitted to add the crucial word Tradizionale to their labels. The description Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia is also legally protected.