Modenese balsamic vinegar

 

First things first, balsamic vinegar contains no balsam (the adjective derives from ancient Latin for “restorative”) and has very little to do with normal vinegar. Also, to make things more complicated, the same name may refer to three rather different products.

 

Traditional balsamic vinegar

This is the true thing, produced only by two consortiums in Modena and Reggio Emilia (the latter is however considered an inferior product). It is a dark and syrupy substance with a very textured flavor which could be described as “sweet and sour”, but these words do no justice to it. The complexity derives from its long production techniques, that is based on reducing the juice of local grapes over a minimum of twelve years. As the liquid condenses it is moved in smaller and smaller barrels of different woods, each one imparting its own taste to the vinegar – the aged barrels themselves are passed down from generation to generation in the local vinegar-making families, and are considered priceless.

The vinegar is almost just as expensive, with very small vials going for hundreds of euros each. The best (and most expensive) have a gold cap, indicating the vinegar has aged over 25 years.

Such a refined product is consumed by the drop, to impart its fantastic flavor to foods ranging from strawberries, meat and – more traditionally – Parmigiano reggiano cheese, or by itself. One drop is enough to give your tastebuds a memorable experience lasting up to half an hour.

 

Balsamic vinegar

The lack of the ‘traditional’ prefix indicates a commercial-grade imitation you can easily find in Italian supermarkets. This is produced by adding caramel and thickeners to a normal vinegar aged a minimum of two months in aluminium barrels. While the flavor is distinctly better than regular vinegars, the taste is only a pale approximation of the real thing. In the last fifteen years, balsamic vinegar has almost completely substituted regular vinegars on Italian tables, and it is frequently used on salads, eggs and pretty much everywhere else.

 

Balsamic vinegar condiment

This is a sort of hybrid between the two products above. It comes from commercial balsamic vinegar added with reduced grape juice, all aged in wooden barrels. The point here is that the aging is much less than 12 years, the barrels are of nondescript wood, there is no moving through various woods and it can be produced everywhere, with any sort of juice. For such a bastardized product, condiment is in fact very tasty, quite affordable and actually better suited to non-connoisseurs tastes than real traditional balsamic vinegar, as its flavor is much simpler to process.