Gift of Balsamic Vinegar
In the year 1046, Marquess Bonifacio, Sir of the Canossa castle, presented Emperor Enrico III of Franconia with a bottle of balsamic vinegar. This gift was the first documented reference to the precious elixir so valued by cooks today.
During the Middle Ages, balsamic vinegar served medicinal purposes and was reputed to be a magical cure for problems ranging from sore throats to labor pains. Balsamic vinegar also found use as an effective disinfectant. Today, it is still a thoughtful and well-received offering, and is often given as a housewarming gift.
We have centuries of family tradition and expertise to thank for the balsamic vinegar we find today in the aisles of gourmet food shops. The finest of this vinegar is said to have originated in Modena, Italy, and even today the most renowned balsamic vinegar is produced only in Modeana and Reggio, Italy. Some believe the first batch was the result of a small amount of cooked grapes, or “must,” spilled and forgotten. Over time, a natural acetification, or conversion to acetic acid or vinegar, occurred and the aged vinegar captured food-lovers with its distinctive sweet and sour taste.
Over the years, research and scientific improvement have perfected the complex production process of balsamic vinegar. The Trebbiano variety of grape is preferred for red, and the Spergola for white sauvignon. The unfermented juice, or “must” of the grapes is cooked slowly in copper pots over open direct flame until the liquid is reduced by half and one is left with the thick and fruity syrup. A slimy substance forms over the vinegar surface, named “Mother” of vinegar, it is a combination of yeast and bacteria. Sometimes older aged balsamic vinegar is added to assist in the acetification process.
To earn the label “balsamic vinegar” in Italy, a minimum period of 12 years of aging is required. Barrels used for the aging process may be crafted only of certain woods including oak, cherry, mulberry, ash, acacia and juniper. Each type of wood adds its own nuance to the taste as the vinegar is changed into increasingly smaller barrels during the process. It is important to know the quality of the vinegar if you are giving it as a gourmet gift. Balsamic vinegars off the shelf with no such label have usually spent between six months and one year in stainless steel tanks. They may also have aged in wooden casks from two to 12 years. If not labeled “traditionale”, you might be buying a mixture of vinegar, syrup and other additives. These are the bottles you might find in prepackaged gift baskets. At 12 years, the vinegar is labeled “traditional”. Over 25 years of aging produces vinegar able to be called “Extra Vecchio.” A consortium governing body (similar to those that label French and Italian wines) decides what quality the vinegar can be labeled.
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