Aceto balsamico. Sounds pretty exotic. And at one time in North America – say, before 1980 – it was. But now you’ll find balsamic vinegar in your corner store and on almost every menu, from fine dining to fast food.
In the grocery aisle, balsamic vinegars range from the real thing to massproduced, unaged wine vinegar that’s been all dolled up – with caramel, thickening agents and colourings – to look like balsamic. But true balsamico is something special. In Italy, its production falls under the auspices of a consortium, just like wine. The organization, Consorzio Pro duttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, issues designations (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or D.O.P.) and oversees grape growing and production practices, from fermentation to bottling and labelling.
But how do you know if that bottle in your hand is the real thing or not? Well, your first clue is the price; the real stuff isn’t cheap. Also, look for the phrase Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia or di Modena on the label (the latter will also say D.O.P.). And then, of course, read the ingredients. If anything has been added, it’s not true balsamic.
Balsamico tradizionale is a simple and natural collaboration between man and nature. Grape juice is simmered to a thick, sweet concentrate, then fermented and aged in wooden barrels for many years -- from a minimum of two up to 25 or more -- before bottling. It’s in these barrels, made from ash, cherry, oak, mulberry, acacia or chestnut wood, that the final product develops its trademark viscosity, sweetness, colour and rich, mello flavour. And what about the price tag? Well, at the Cheese Boutique, a Toronto epicurean emporium, a 2.5 fl. oz bottle of 103-year-old balsamico sells for $800! Fret not -- you can pick up a bottle of true balsamico for as little as $10. And that’s what most of us want: a good, reasonably priced, everyday balsamic to use in vinaigrettes and marinades.
Can balsamico be the real article if it isn’t from Italy? Sure, if it’s made in the traditional method, and B.C. winemakers Venturi-Schulze (venturischulze.com) are proof! Giordano and Marilyn Venturi simmer grape juice over an open fire, then age the vinegar in large French oak barrels followed by smaller ones made of various woods from Modena. Besides the grapes, Giordano believes that passion and patience are key to making a balsamic that’s good enough to drink. As his wife tells us, “Every once in a while, especially in quiet, special moments, he just savours some from a small glass.”