The Noble Vinegar: Sampling True Balsamic Vinegar Without Paying a King's Ransom

by Corby Kummer

AS the supermarket version of balsamic vinegar was mounting its conquest of American salads, I

ignored its advances. I wouldn’t lower myself to buy a $4 bottle of industrial vinegar, having paid a small fortune ($40-$100 apiece) in Italy for several tiny bottles of homemade balsamic vinegar—the kind that until recently was never even sold but only handed down through generations or given as a sign of special esteem. True balsamic vinegar is viscous, with a mahogany

sheen that makes it seem more a glaze than a common vinegar. The flavor is mellow, deep, rounded, and of such concentrated sweetness that the acid serves only to accentuate the herbal notes conferred by the various aromatic woods in which the vinegar has aged for at least twelve years and often for decades.

Supermarket balsamic vinegar is just red-wine vinegar cut with sugar and water. In wine vinegar most or all of the grape sugar has been fermented to alcohol by yeast, and then the alcohol has been fermented to acetic acid by bacteria. (Anyone who has opened a bottle of leftover wine knows that this second fermentation can take place unbidden.) The result is something very sour, which offers its own pleasures.

True balsamic vinegar begins not with wine but with unfermented grape juice, cooked down to concentrate its sugar. During the long aging the two kinds of fermentation, alcoholic and acetic, take place, and continual evaporation thickens the liquid. Every year the barrels are refreshed with both new vinegar and cooked-down juice, so that they won’t be lined with very hard caramel. The resulting flavors are complex, and the vinegar is naturally far sweeter than wine vinegar.

I stayed smug, and my valuable little bottles stayed on high shelves. I watched the elaborate ceremony that waiters perform at Amarcord, a crowded new Manhattan restaurant featuring the food of Emilia-Romagna, where balsamic vinegar originated—they use an eyedropper to dispense balsamic vinegar onto thin slices of succulent boiled meats and capon taken from a steaming cart of bollito misto—and remembered the similarly stingy tableside ceremonies at restaurants in Emilia-Romagna itself. However often I cooked deeply flavored meat sauces, which benefit greatly from even a quarter teaspoon of balsamic vinegar, or ate strawberries, melon, and other summer fruits, whose sweetness is tempered by it, I rarely allowed myself a drop from one year to the next.

Then I discovered what the Italians call a via di mezzo. The balsamic vinegar that represents this “middle way” is certainly not the magnificent elixir that only long aging can produce. But it isn’t cheap sharp vinegar, either, with a complete absence of depth. “Condiment” balsamic vinegar is a far less expensive version of the real thing, made with sound ingredients and aged a shorter time, to save money—but aged in wood, and blessed with the flavors only wood can confer. Once I made this discovery, balsamic vinegar became for me something between a condiment and a beverage.

A BOTTLE of balsamic vinegar of any kind is a rarity in an Italian kitchen. Many Italians I know frankly dislike it— too sweet, too strange. A supermarket in a midsize American town is much more likely than an equivalent grocery store in Italy to stock balsamic vinegar, industrial though it may be. Even connoisseurs in Italy save balsamic vinegar for use as a precious after-dinner cordial or as a remedy against dyspepsia (it was originally used as a medicine). They are astonished to hear how freely Americans use it.

Some food writers think of balsamic vinegar as soy sauce without the salt, a comparison I don’t find particularly apt. The primary tastes of soy sauce are salt, ferment, and then sweetness. The primary tastes of balsamic vinegar are the sweetness of fruit, the acidity of vinegar, and herbal notes if it has aged in wood. The American mania for balsamic vinegar can likely be traced more directly to the sweet-and-sour foods of our German heritage than to the current popularity of things Italian. Balsamic vinegar is a much classier way to get sugar into a salad than simply spooning some in, as Americans once did by using boiled dressings and now do by using bottled ones (Russian, French), which all contain plenty of sugar.

On a recent trip to Parma, the hamand-cheese capital of Italy. I followed the old Roman Via Emilia, now a superhighway, thirty miles east to Modena, which claims an exalted lineage for its balsamic vinegar. I went there to see Claudio Biancardi, a retired, though young, professor of engineering who continues his family’s tradition of making balsamic vinegar under the eaves of the unheated attic in his family house. When I visited, late in the spring, Biancardi was engaged in a continuing legal battle to reserve the words “balsamic” and “Modena” for vinegar made according to the old ways: beginning the process with cooked-down juice, known as must, from locally grown grapes, most of them of the white Trebbiano variety, and then aging the vinegar for a minimum of twelve years in a series of barrels made of aromatic woods. (The word “balsamic” doesn’t refer to wood; it was once a general word for many salutary potions.) Currently any industrial product can be called “balsamic vinegar of Modena.” The only word that by law distinguishes the old-style vinegar from the new is “traditional”—not a word consumers know to look for. Biancardi is afraid that a new regulation now being considered will confuse matters yet further, and consumers will never know why one miniature bottle costs $60-$200 and another good-sized one costs $6.

Each step in the process of making traditional balsamic vinegar requires long experience. The cooking of the grape juice must begin before the juice naturally ferments to alcohol and must be slow, to prevent scorching while reaching the desired level of sugar. The must is left to ferment and acidify, using the bacteria naturally present in old barrels and in the dosings of new vinegar. After as much as three years of initial fermentation the vinegar is aged in batterie, series of increasingly small barrels of as many as seven different woods. The shuttling of the vinegar and must from barrel to barrel and the kinds of woods are up to the maker, and here skill and individual taste come into play. Climate does too, because cold nights and temperate days strengthen and mature the vinegar.

Most hereditary family batterie consist of just three barrels, usually of oak, chestnut, and mulberry; juniper is occasionally used, even if some find its gamy note distracting. Also, although families will brag of their century-old barrels, the problems of maintenance mean that few barrels are older than twenty or thirty years. Evaporation is encouraged by leaving plenty of headroom and by covering bungholes with nothing but cloth, of a weight somewhere between canvas and old cotton sheets.

Biancardi trotted me around the many lines of old barrels in his impressive acetaia, or “vinegar room,” extracting samples with a glass tube that looked like a bulb baster and placing drops on the back of my hand. I tasted vanilla, wood, acid, slight hints of resinous herbs like rosemary and thyme, chocolate in the older vinegars, and a rounded sweetness that became more and more toffeelike as the samples got older. I was amazed at how much flavor could be released from a lick of just one drop—which is all I got.

Meanwhile, Biancardi spoke with increasing agitation of the scandalous practices of industrial producers: starting with the cheapest available wine vinegar; ignoring local grapes; adding beet sugar, irrigation-quality water, and caramel for coloring; omitting the essential quotient of long-aged vinegars; skipping wood aging altogether. After our tasting he led me to his study, where his fight with the Ministry of Agriculture occupies most of his time. Prodded by his wife, he presented me with a bottle of his own vinegar as I left. No wonder he was reluctant: traditional Modenese vinegar sells both here and in Italy for $100 and up—often way up. Naturally, I haven’t dared to open the bottle.

AFTER leaving Biancardi, I drove a few miles back into enemy territory—the region around Reggio Emilia, which has its own designation for traditional balsamic vinegar. The rivalry between the two cities is long-standing. The Modena consortium of traditional balsamic-vinegar makers thinks that only it knows how to evaluate vinegar correctly and maintain quality. Reggio Emilia sees nothing wrong with marketing three kinds of balsamic vinegar—a practice that keeps the prices of the two younger vinegars far below that of traditional Modena vinegar.

I was going to the source of the vinegar that converted me to the profligate American use of balsamic vinegar—Cavalli, where Roberto and Giovanni Cavalli, sons of the founder (the business is parvenu by local standards), make both traditional and condiment-quality vinegar. In their enthusiasm and constant interruptions of each other the brothers reminded me of the two screenwriters in Robert Altman’s The Player who keep popping up to try to sell their concepts. The Cavallis take shortcuts for the condiment vinegar: they use big casks rather than smaller barrels; they drop aromatic wood twigs right into the vinegar as it ages to infuse it with flavor; they stop the aging after three years rather than the far costlier twelve. Still, the vinegar starts with unadulterated cooked must from traditional grape varieties; it shuttles among casks in what Burton Anderson, in his chapter on balsamic vinegar in Treasures of the Italian Table, calls a “waltz”; and no coloring is necessary—the condiment is already a lush purple-brown.

I’ve sampled a dozen moderately priced balsamic vinegars, many in fancy bottles with labels attesting to their long aging in wood, some more expensive than Cavalli’s. The only condiment vinegars to rival the rounded sweetness and welcome acidity of Cavalli’s are the house brand of the New York gourmet shop Balducci’s, which is made in a similar way but ends up a bit sweeter, in Modenese style; and a new Californian entry, a balsamic vinegar aged six years by the very talented Cristina Carrelli. who grows grapes just for vinegar at Vine Hill Farms, in Sonoma. Less impressive but acceptable are the condiment vinegar of Giusti, a long-established house in Modena, and Manicardi “8,” in a neat, bulbous bottle. I found every other brand, including the widely distributed Fini, in its pretty faceted frosted-glass bottle, to be an unpleasant amalgam of shrill red-wine vinegar and one-dimensional sweetness. Better to use a really good wine vinegar and stir in some honey.

(For notes on how wine vinegar is made and how to make it yourself, see the spring, 1994, issue of Edward Behr’s fine quarterly newsletter. The Art of Eating, which costs $25 a year and can be ordered from Box 242, Peacham, VT 05862. Even if Behr likes France better than Italy, I’m a devoted reader, and this is a particularly good issue.)

With an air of giving me quite a gift, the brothers Cavalli presented me with a bottle of their silver-label traditional vinegar; by coincidence I had already bought one in America, for $79, from the store Zingerman’s, in Ann Arbor, and on a previous trip to Reggio Emilia I had also bought a bottle of red-label vinegar, the least expensive traditional version, which Zingerman’s sells for $59. These economy versions of traditional vinegar don’t seem interesting enough to merit the price. If I’m going to spend a lot of money for a tiny bottle from which to take a teaspoon every December, I’ll buy traditional Modena vinegar (you can order a bottle from Richard Rogers, at 203-4260216, or one from Corti Brothers, at 916736-3800; be prepared for a bill of at least $100). If I’m going to use a tablespoon or two at a time. I’ll happily pay $20 or so for a half liter of Cavalli condiment vinegar (it’s widely available; you can order it from Zingerman’s, at 313-663-3400) or order the similarly priced “Mamma” Balducci’s (the telephone number is 800225-3822) or Vine Hill Farms’ (available from Katz & Company, in Napa Valley, which makes its own delicious fruit preserves: the number is 707-944-1393). If the only choice is cheap industrial vinegar, I’ll take that of Monari Federzoni, the familiar supermarket brand with the strange picture on the label of a padlocked spider web over a bunch of grapes, which at least has enough sugar to mask the stinging sharpness of the base wine vinegar.

TRADITIONAL balsamic vinegar gives incomparable depth to a sauce, especially a long-simmered one that includes meat and tomatoes. But condiment vinegar gives you a chance to try all kinds of combinations. You might want to experiment right away with pouring it over vanilla ice cream, or sprinkling it over anything fried. A good place to look for more ideas is Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table, a book about the food of Emilia-Romagna. Kasper suggests using it in recipes for potato salad and grilled endive, putting it on grilled sweet peppers seasoned with fresh oregano and black pepper, and using it as a marinade for fatty fish such as bluefish, salmon, and tuna, and for poultry and meat, with garlic and cilantro. She reserves traditional vinegar for scallops, lobster, and fresh fruit—and, of course, to be sipped as an after-dinner cordial.

In my abandon after discovering Cavalli, I found that it goes well with orange juice. My standard salad dressing last winter was extra-virgin olive oil and equal parts balsamic vinegar and orange juice. In the summer, when lettuce has more flavor and herbs are plentiful, I revert to lemon juice as the sole acid for salads and anything raw, and brush grilled vegetables and fish with oil and balsamic vinegar and herbs. Like sweet wines, balsamic vinegar enhances foods that go well with onions, such as beef stews and liver, and is particularly good on baked whole onions. Now that I have a secure source of affordable good vinegar, when I make a very-long-cooked ragout sauce this winter, I might even break open one of my hoarded bottles.