The explosion of Balsamic Vinegar sales in this country over the last ten years happened too fast, and too easily, too good to be true. Bottles bearing the name "Balsamic" sitting on supermarket shelves just didn't mesh with the legends of craftsmanship and long aging. But better to learn the truth late in life than never. Now I know.
Ninety nine point nine percent of the stuff that's been shipped over here from Italy is labeled as "Balsamic Vinegar". But (say it ain't so Joe!) what's inside is not the real thing. At least not according to Italian law, nor by the standard of legend and lore coming out of the town where it's been made for the last millenia.
From the Middle Ages to Middle America
Up until a decade or so ago what is now the most famous vinegar in the world, was nothing more than a little known, local specialty from the town of Modena, near Bologna. The name probably contributed to its lack of recognition. Best I can tell, it's meaning is unclear, though most folks seem to believe it has to do with "balm" or healthiness. (Regardless, it has nothing at all to do with "balsa wood.") The dark, rich, slightly sweet-sour vinegar was made in near obscurity there and there alone from the 11th century up until sometime in the late 1970's. For hundreds of years, the locals have held annual contests for vinegar boasting rights. Tiny bottles of Balsamico, are handed down from generation to generation, or at times given as gifts by local aristocrats to foriegn dignitaries.
And then, BAM! Balsamico went mass market. In the late 1970's "Balsamic Vinegar" came to America. Just over a decade later bottles of it are lined up on the shelves at supermarkets everywhere. While the name remains the same, what's inside is as far from the ancient specialty of Modena as a candy bar from a gas station is from fine Belgian chocolate.
Courtesy of a day's visit at the vinegar works of brothers Roberto and Giovanni Cavalli, I had a chance to get the true, rarely told story of real Balsamic vinegar..
"Roll Out the Barrels..."
The Cavalli Vinegar Works, or "acetaia", is located in the tiny town of Scandiano, about twenty minutes outside of Modena, just west of the autostrada that connects Bologna with Milan. The Cavalli brothers inherited the acetaia from their father, Dottore Fernando Cavalli, who passed away in 1998. The Dottore began to make Balsamic vinegar after over fifty years of work as a winemaker. While making his own vinegars, Dottore Cavalli also purchased barrels filled with very old vinegars from what the brothers refer to somewhat mysteriously, as an "aristocratic family." These aged vinegars gave the brothers the base they needed to make their vinegars into something special.
The Cavalli acetaia has got to be a cooper's idea of heaven - everywhere you turn, there are barrels: barrels made from oak, cherry, mulberry, chestnut, and juniper. There are new barrels, old barrels, barrels built before the turn of the century, barrels six feet across all the way down to tiny little things no more than a foot high. And they're everywhere! There are barrels in the attic, on the main floor, even in the stairways. Barrels and flies—flies buzzing around the mouth of every barrel are the 'mosca', the tiny, mosquito sized "vinegar flies" which are found in every acetaia. The opening to each barrel is covered with a small screen and a piece of cloth which keep the flies out while allowing the precious vinegar to breathe.The smell of the wood, of time and grapes, of must and attics....is everywhere.
The brothers seem to know most every barrel intimately. Rarely reading the labels chalked onto the face of each of the barrels, they walk around pointing here and there, like proud parents introducing me - in a mixture of our respectively halting English and Italian - to their children. "This ... 'gold label', fifty years old. This... very special 'gold label', one hundred years old, from "aristocratic family". This 'red label' ....70 years old". So many barrels filled with so much precious liquid.
"Balsamic Vinegar - A Little Known Story"
Italians refer to Real Balsamic Vinegar as "tradizionale", in contrast to the "industriale" or industrial vinegar on supermarket shelves. Real Balsamic Vinegar is never, ever, cheap. To the contrary it is always very expensive. You'll no more see Real Balsamic Vinegar on supermarket shelves than you'll see real Gucci leather at a Brooklyn street market.
Aceto Balsamico tradizionale has an incredibly rich, deep, dark amber color, an almost syrupy texture. Its flavor is intense, a perfectly calibrated starburst of sweet and sour. It 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 yet never intrusive. Hints of plums, black grapes, wild currants, vanilla, a touch of oak. To taste industriale after the real thing is like following aged cognac with a bottle of cola. There's a place in the world for each, but they aren't the same thing.
Real Balsamic vinegar starts with the must of the local Trebbiano and Spergola grapes. Because it is made from must - which is freshly pressed juice of wine grapes - not wine, Aceto Balsamico is not strictly a "wine vinegar". It is... well, it's Aceto Balsamico. The fresh must is brought to the acetaia , poured into open copper kettles, then cooked down to a thick, almost syrupy consistency. From the kettles the newly cooked must is shifted into wooden barrels. Each vinegar maker uses his own mix of woods. The Cavalli's work with oak, cherry, mulberry, chestnut and juniper. Just as barrel aging develops the flavor and identity of a fine wine, so too each of these woods contributes its character to the flavor the vinegar. After twelve years in wood, each batch of vinegar is taste-tested by a panel of experts from the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico, the body which oversees and monitors production and ensures standards of quality.
The vinegars on which the panel bestows its seal of approval qualify as Aceto Balsamico. These in turn are broken into three classes. The highest grade, the best of the vinegars, is 'gold label'; the next highest become 'silver label,' the rest 'red label'. Throughout its life - which might be decades or even centuries - the vinegar will retain this classification. Once a 'red label', always a red label. It's a caste system where even the lowly are something special.
After the certification, the real work of the master vinegar maker begins. That is to gradually move them through the five different varieties of wooden barrels in the acetaia, starting in large barrels, finishing in small casks. When a new vinegar is added to a barrel a small amount of the old is left inside. Hence even the youngest "tradizionale" has a bit of ancient, aristocratic blood in its "veins". The vinegars are never blended across the grades. 'Gold label' is blended with 'gold label', silver with silver, etc. Vinegars may be aged for years, decades, even centuries. When the Cavalli's are ready to sell off some of their vinegar, they blend a couple of different "vintages" to create their version of vinegar perfection. What is bottled each year is the vinegar master's perogative—a limited, never to be reproduced delicacy.
What do you do with a bottle of Real Balsamic Vinegar?
Getting your hands on real balsamic vinegar is like going morel hunting in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or like eating fresh white truffles in the south of France, or like getting a hold of a quart of wild Michigan thimbleberries, or watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. It's not easy and it's not often but it sure is good when you get it.
Give Real Balsamic Vinegar as a special gift to someone who loves great food (acknowledging all the while you might be that someone). You sprinkle a few drops onto freshly cut greens for a special salad. You break off tiny wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano and dip them in it after dinner. You wait until the Early Glow Strawberries (yes, vinegar and strawberries...it's a memorable combination) appear at the Farmer's Market in June and then you take a quart of them and your bottle of real balsamic vinegar to the park to celebrate whatever you can think of to celebrate. Sprinkle a few drops on a salad of radicchio and freshly grated parmigiano cheese. The Modenese sip it as an digestif after dinner! They know what they're doing.
So... if that's Real Balsamic Vinegar, what's all the other stuff out there for sale? We'll start with the "next best thing" and work our way down, so to speak, to the bottom of the barrel.
One step down - Balsamic Condiment
For those folks who can't afford to spend $50-75 on a bottle of real Balsamic Vinegar every week (i.e. most of us), the Cavalli's make what they call "Balsamic Condiment". They don't call it "vinegar" because it doesn't qualify as real Balsamic Vinegar. But it is the next best thing.
Cavalli Balsamic Condiment is made from 50% Trebbiano must (remember the real thing is made from 100% must), and 50% aged wine vinegar. The Cavalli's age their 'condimento' in wood barrels for at least three years before it is ready to be bottled and shipped. If you're looking for something delicious for your everyday use, this is what I would wholeheartedly recommend. It's great on salads, in marinades, sprinkled onto spring lamb, drizzled onto fresh berries.
Their Balsamic Condiment is as low as the Cavalli's go in the market. Most big producers go much lower.
The Best and Worst of the Rest
If most of what's being sold in this country as "Balsamic Vinegar", isn't in fact Real Balsamic Vinegar, then why does it say so on the label? Because only Italian law restricts the use of the name Balsamic Vinegar. In America you can put any vinegar you want in a bottle and call it Balsamic. But remember, you get what you pay for.
No one sells Real Balsamic Vinegar cheaply because it is very, very expensive to make. To make balsamic-like vinegar that is affordable on an every day basis, you have to compromise. And where each producer chooses to make that compromise determines the quality of their product. The general rule with Balsamic wanna-be's is as follows: The higher the percentage of must and the higher the quality of whatever is used to make up the rest of the bottle, the higher the quality of the finished product. The price is always tied to the quality.
At the pinnacle is the real, aceto Balsamico tradizionale. The next step down—still pretty high on the scale—is the Cavalli Balsamic Condiment, or other comparable bottles.
From there, you move down to the Monari Federzoni brand of "Balsamic Vinegar", the one with the now familiar green and orange label. This is the stuff that has taken America by storm. At $5 or so a bottle it has rightfully found its way into millions of American homes. It is made from about 30% must, filled out with unaged, wine vinegar . Mind you the Monari Federzoni bottle isn't a bad product. We sell and use lots of it at Zingerman's. While it's a far cry from the elegance and intensity of the real thing it makes a great everyday salad dressing.
The Monari Federzoni bottles are not the end of the line. At the very bottom, the worst of the worst, are cheap vinegars sweetened with sugar and darkened with carmel coloring, yet labelled with those same misused words, "Balsamic vinegar" . A good friend of mine was given a taste of vinegar like this made by a California entrepreneur trying to cash in on the Balsamic boom. He spit it out. Like I said; "Buyers beware."
A Taste of a Life Time - 300 Year Old Vinegar
As a special treat the Cavalli's gave me a chance to taste one of their oldest vinegars. "Would you like to taste some 300 year old vinegar?", Giovanni asked. Not the time to be excessively polite, I decided. "Sure," I said, trying to act at least reasonably casual about the whole thing (all the while wanting to say something smart like "Naw. Don't bother. I get it all the time at home.")
Even the act of tasting real balsamic vinegar from the barrels is something special. Giovanni inserted a special glass tube, an ampolla, into the barrel, then brought it back out filled with thick, syrupy brown-black vinegar.. He had me hold out my hand, almost as you would to grasp a tennis racket, then released a drop of the precious vinegar down about where the bones of the thumb and forefinger come together. The vinegar formed a shiny, thick, brownish-black droplet, so dense that it sat there on the back of my hand, like a tear hanging on a child's cheek.
Slowly, carefully (I was terrified that it might slide off onto the floor) I raised my hand to my mouth and plucked the drop off my hand. Dense, thick with flavor, sweet yet pleasantly sour, with hints of the wood, vanilla, grapes, berries, and hundreds of years of history.... It's hard to conceive of tasting something that was made in the 1690's!. "Squisito", you might say if you were Italian. I just smiled and nodded my head.