SINCE I saw my first age-darkened barrel of balsamic vinegar, balsamic seems to have replaced red-wine vinegar as a pantry staple in virtually every corner of this country. Last May I returned to Modena, in the rich industrial northern-Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, and visited a number of producers of "traditional" balsamic vinegar -- the kind that costs a small fortune -- in and around the city's beautifully preserved medieval and Renaissance center. I've already written about the progress of the syrupy, cordovan-red liquid from barrel to barrel in the sloped attics of old estates (see "The Noble Vinegar," September, 1994, Atlantic). On this trip I listened for hours to updates on the battles royal over the designation "balsamic vinegar of Modena" -- which, to the understandable dismay of my hosts, the Consorzio Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, can be used by anyone anywhere (the Consorzio has exclusive rights only to the word tradizionale).
I concentrated less on labeling disputes than on how the vinegar tastes and how best to use it. In the past year or two I have sampled and used many kinds of vinegar; coming to know and rely on other kinds has focused my taste for balsamic -- and intensified my dislike for the indiscriminately sweet, caramel-laced industrial product common in both supermarkets and gourmet stores. I now search harder for nuanced flavor and a subtle balance of sweet and sour. In Modena I discovered a few affordable balsamic vinegars that approach the complexity of the small-fortune kind.
I also learned to be generous. Some restaurateurs in this country bring a bottle to the table with great ceremony and dispense the thick liquid with an eyedropper -- a ridiculous and stingy practice. Restaurateurs in Emilia-Romagna use spoons or pour straight from the bottle.
BEASTLY weather seems to be essential to creating the vinegars I like best. Even in late May the Modenese heat and humidity were stifling, and the air never moved. Factories in the Po Valley help to cause frequent inversions, but long before industry came, the plains suffered damp, cold winters and close, humid summers. I could well imagine how the various perfumed woods -- juniper, chestnut, cherry, mulberry, and, of course, oak among them -- used in vinegar barrels, tucked in the hottest part of a house, under the slopes of the attic, could sweat into the vinegar, and how the vinegar would invade the relaxed pores of the wood, looking for a breath of fresh air. The torrid weather makes balsamic vinegar work hard to survive: as much as 80 to 85 percent of it evaporates during the minimum twelve years of aging for tradizionale. Cool winters give both wood and vinegar time to rest before the next season's workout.
Good wood and plenty of grape sugar are also essential to vinegars I like -- but not wine. Most wine vinegar doesn't interest me. I've tried many vinegars made by artisans using exceptional wines as a base, and have found them too thin and sharp. Although almost all vinegar is around six percent acetic acid when it's bottled, producers often water it down to bring it to that level, diluting flavor and texture. Grape sugar tempers the acidity of balsamic vinegar, and the aging in wood gives it interest. My usual salad dressing is oil and lemon juice; if I'm substituting a vinegar (or, more likely, adding vinegar to the lemon juice), I want it to have citrus fruit's push-pull of sweet and sour, and the mellow depth that only wood aging can provide.
Adding sugar to vinegar is not the way to get that push-pull, although virtually every producer of balsamic vinegar outside Modena does that, and quite a few in Modena as well. Balsamic vinegar starts not with wine, in which most or all of the grape sugar has fermented to alcohol, but with the cooked-down juice of very sweet grapes, itself quite thick. Producers who want to save time and money and satisfy customer demand add caramel or cooked-down grape juice to already fermented vinegar. Although the deep purple-brown color and heavy density may be right, the flavor is somewhere between Passover wine and grape jelly. Most fruit vinegars are a sham too. "Raspberry" vinegar is usually just indifferent white-wine vinegar with raspberry extract, sometimes artificial, added at the end.
Other, true fruit-based vinegars have both the sweet-sour interest and the wood-aged complexity I so admire in balsamic. Cider vinegar, for instance, has the potential for greatness: it can be fermented directly from apples and aged in wood. I love cider vinegar on fresh melon and over fruit salad, and recently looked hard for a source of wood-aged cider vinegar, which seems to have fallen out of fashion. Sterling True Cider Vinegar soldiers on, however, and you can call the distributor at 800-800-2155 to learn where to find it.
Recently I discovered the unusual and worthy maple vinegar, which is fermented from maple syrup rather than simply flavored with it. John Boyajian, a Massachusetts food importer and producer, ferments syrup he buys from Vermonters (including Martin von Trapp, of the Sound of Music family), using vinegar-fermenting bacteria, or "mother," provided as a legacy by Orpha Smith, a Vermont woman he discovered making maple vinegar when she was in her nineties. Smith fermented hers for a minimum of eleven months; Boyajian has shortened the process to two and a half months. Even if his vinegar lacks the depth created by wood aging (he uses plastic vats), it has a light maple tang utterly different from maple's usual achingly sweet flavor. An eight-ounce bottle of maple vinegar costs six or seven dollars; the Whole Foods chain sells it, or you can call Boyajian at 800-965-0665.