The Sweet of the Sour

Other vinegars have the sweet-sour interest for which balsamic is so admired.

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.

Illustration by Hervé Blondon 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.

Sherry vinegar is as interesting as balsamic but far less well known. Sherry is a fortified wine, meaning that the initial fermentation is halted (by the addition of neutral spirits) while the wine is still relatively high in grape sugar; the wine is aged in barrels of oak carefully chosen for its porosity, in Jerez, on Spain's Atlantic coast, where summers are torrid and winters are cool. Sherry passes through many barrels and is continually mixed with wines of various ages, so the end product, like balsamic vinegar, contains both relatively young and very old liquid.

Although sherry vinegar is never as syrupy as balsamic, and tastes more potently acidic, it often has comparable balance and depth. The range of flavors includes strong oak, leather, mushroom, and the salt of the sea air. Ari Weinzweig, a founder of the Ann Arbor food shop Zingerman's, has long been a champion of sherry vinegar; I learned to share his enthusiasm when I helped to edit an informative and concise pamphlet he wrote on vinegar. Of the sherry vinegars I've tried, my favorite is twenty-five-year-old Sanchez Romate ($19 for a bottle of just over twenty-five ounces, available from Zingerman's at 888-636-8162 or, because of its initial sweetness and final acid hit that never seems harsh. I find younger vinegars too sharp and older ones too musty. I immediately wanted to try the twenty-five-year-old on sturdy oakleaf lettuce and on tomatoes, which sherry vinegar especially complements.

Any fortified wine, particularly a sweet one, should be a good vinegar candidate. But I've never encountered a noteworthy champagne vinegar. (The Spanish do better making vinegar from cava, a sparkling wine made like champagne.) Two fortified white wines do make lovely vinegars, thinner than balsamic or sherry vinegar but with a bit of weight on the tongue and plenty of flavor overtones. Banyuls, a rare French dessert wine, is the base for a strong, oaky vinegar (available from Dean & Deluca, 800-221-7714, at $15 for about eleven and a half ounces) that is a far more interesting choice in any dish calling for white-wine vinegar. An eccentric and revered restaurateur in Piedmont named Cesare Giaccone produces a muscat vinegar that tastes particularly sweet and gentle, even though it has the same six percent acidity as other vinegars ($12.95 for about eight and a half ounces, from A.G. Ferrari Foods, at 877-878-2783 or www. German late-harvest Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein, among the world's rarest and sweetest wines, produce vinegars so fine and sweet that they are only sipped. Zingerman's sells Trockenbeerenauslese at $100 and Eiswein (made from grapes that have frozen and thus contain extremely concentrated sugar) at $145 for about eight and a half ounces; before you commit to buying, the store will send you a free taste in a little plastic cup. I wouldn't refuse a Bibb-lettuce salad dressed with either vinegar, but sipped straight these go down beautifully.

As for balsamic vinegars, I'm less impressed than I once was with the concoctions called "condiments" (the term avoids labeling controversies), which are usually blends of very young vinegars with cooked-down grape juice. I prefer the real thing -- the tradizionale. In Modena last May, as part of a balsamic-vinegar festival, volunteers manning little wooden huts that dotted the city center doled out tastes of the traditional-vinegar consortium's two varieties -- one aged a minimum of twelve years, the other a minimum of twenty-five years. I had come to the conclusion that the twelve-year-old, introduced by the consortium as a lower-priced alternative, was not worth bothering with: once you've decided to pay more than $50 for less than three and a half ounces, you might as well buy the older vinegar and see what the fuss is about.

But then I happened on a twelve-year-old traditional vinegar that impressed me with its roundness and full flavor -- so much so that after tasting it at a booth I bought two bottles on the spot and later went to visit the producer, a few miles out of town. A tour of the Malpighi estate, with its hundreds of aging barrels, showed me how a blend of younger vinegars could so closely approximate older ones: the family has many, many vinegars to choose from, whereas most other producers have a modest number at their disposal. The marketing of the product of what was an aristocratic hobby is, after all, a phenomenon of only the past twenty years, and most bottlers' reserves are small. I was not startled to learn that the Malpighi family's chief business is steel, and that it bought the barrels of many old families to build its stock. (Williams-Sonoma sells twelve-year-old Malpighi for $89 and twenty-five-year-old for $174 in bottles of a little less than three and a half ounces.)

A rival consortium in Modena sells younger vinegars made under less-strict rules, which allow producers to add cooked-down grapes. These, which will have "Aceto balsamico di Modena" on the label without the "tradizionale," are inexpensive enough to be used frequently. Many are cloying and monochromatic. But I did find one, Villa Manodori, made by Massimo Bottura, an ambitious young Modena-born chef trained in France and America, that was an excellent compromise between traditional and the rest (Salumeria Italiana, a Boston food store, at 800-400-5916, sells a bottle of about eight and a half ounces for $35). Balducci's, the Manhattan gourmet store, also sells several exceptionally well-balanced and relatively inexpensive balsamic vinegars, which it blends itself (800-225-3822).

MODENESE cooks have, naturally, found surprising uses for their most famous product -- uses I couldn't have predicted from my own kitchen experiments, and certainly not from the ways I've seen (cheap) balsamic vinegar splashed around in American restaurants. The idea is that if it's a local specialty, balsamic vinegar will go well with it. That holds true more frequently than I would have thought.

Illustration by Hervé Blondon Emilia-Romagna is famous for its cured meats, and one might think that the strong flavors of salami and sausage would do battle with vinegar. But coppa and cotechino and other local specialties contain little pepper and usually no garlic. There's just the sweet taste of pork with pork fat and salt, and balsamic vinegar enhances it the way truffles enhance eggs. (Like truffles, balsamic vinegar goes well with delicate flavors: scrambled eggs and omelets, and vegetables with pleasing but not domineering flavors, such as fresh fava beans and zucchini blossoms.) The Modenese also pride themselves on bollito misto, steaming boiled meats displayed on a rolling cart; deluxe restaurants generously drizzle balsamic vinegar over the fragrant freshly cut slices. Lynne Rossetto Kasper, whose 1992 book The Splendid Table made Emilia-Romagna a stop nearly as important for food-hunting Americans as Tuscany, gives a recipe for "Balsamico roast chicken and potatoes" in her new The Italian Country Table that demonstrates how well balsamic vinegar, in a marinade and sprinkled over the whole dish before serving, can show off meat.

The emphasis on meat -- and butter, too -- in the rich cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, coupled with an almost phobic avoidance of vegetables in restaurants (homes are another story), long kept me incurious. My impulse was to flee the region after one meal. Imagine my pleasure when I discovered a restaurant where nearly everything on the table had been picked from the cook's garden a few hours before.

Italian gastronomes love Lancellotti, and lately foreigners have been discovering this unprepossessing restaurant, a few miles from Modena. Angelo, Emilio, and Francesco, the three brothers who run the place under the continued supervision of their strong-willed parents, are one reason. Their fifteen-acre garden, which is what's left of the family farm whose income the parents felt they needed to supplement with a restaurant, is the main one. Angelo Lancellotti, an eccentric, exuberant man who cooks with his Czech wife, Zdena, tends the garden according to biodynamic principles largely formulated by him. These include planting small amounts of very different herbs and vegetables right beside one another, depending on which need shade and which sun, resulting in a haphazard, sloppy look and intensely flavored herbs and salad greens.

At Lancellotti I ate the single best green salad of my life, a mixture of greens that usually grow wild but that Angelo had cultivated. Familiar leaves such as lamb's lettuce, sorrel, arugula, and dandelion (whose ovoid, deeply toothed leaf is the restaurant's symbol) had a fine intensity of flavor and a buttery soft sweetness I had never before encountered and still don't understand; I attribute their taste to Angelo's unconventional gardening techniques. There were unfamiliar greens too, which Angelo collected from fields and woods and other people's gardens (some of them are available in U.S. seed catalogues), including salad burnet and bronze fennel. Two edible flowers are Angelo's particular favorites: peppery nasturtium and cucumberlike borage. The dressing was a mixture of mild Ligurian olive oil and traditional balsamic vinegar -- made by Francesco Lancellotti in a family attic -- mixed in a luxurious two-to-one ratio.

I sampled many dishes using balsamic vinegar (at least twenty over five days) at restaurants in and around Modena, many of which, like Lancellotti, serve vinegar made in their own barrels. But on reflection and with at-home experimentation I've concluded that simplest is still best. (The two classic ways to serve it, besides in a dressing, are over vanilla ice cream and with fresh strawberries.) Lancellotti presents newly arrived diners with chunks of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese "baptized" with balsamic vinegar, which looks like purple veining on the irregular, straw-colored pieces. This is an ideal way to keep guests happy while you finish preparing dinner, especially if, like Lancellotti, you serve the cheese with a full-bodied sparkling wine -- say, a spumante from Valdobbiadene, in the Veneto region between Verona and Venice, or a Spanish cava such as Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad. As with most very simple dishes, the ingredients must be perfect: fresh, moist Parmigiano-Reggiano at room temperature, and traditional vinegar, syrupy enough to vein and begin to penetrate the cheese rather than splashing over it and forming a puddle.

Angelo was particularly enthusiastic about a salad of his own devising, which "exalts" the flavor of balsamic vinegar in a surprisingly powerful way, given the simplicity of the dish. I generally look to subtract ingredients from any recipe that calls for more than, say, three, but I was amazed at how all the components of this salad build to a balsamic climax.

The salad features pears and dandelion greens (both of which arrive at markets fresh in the fall and continue through early winter), arugula, and raspberries; chicory or other "frisée" salad leaves, slightly bitter, can be substituted for the dandelion. For each person mix one cup of washed arugula and one cup of washed dandelion or frisée leaves, cut into one-inch lengths, and a firm Bosc pear, peeled, quartered, and cut into slices or chunks. In a separate bowl mix the dressing: for each person stir together one tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil and one tablespoon of lemon juice, and add a quarter cup of raspberries, fresh or frozen and rinsed. Crush the berries with a fork and stir in salt to taste. Toss the dressing with the greens and the pear, and with modest ceremony drizzle a teaspoon of good balsamic vinegar over the salad -- not with an eyedropper, please.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of (1995).

Illustrations by Hervé Blondon.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; The Sweet of the Sour - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 99-103.