Getting to Know Balsamic Vinegar
By Chef Walter Potenza
Balsamic vinegars have been present for about 20 years in mainstream American restaurants and their allure continues to grow in popularity.
However, the presence of this "tart syrup" can be traced back to the end of the Middle Ages in areas between Panaro and Secchia near the city of Modena, in Emilia Romagna. The syrup was initially used for medicinal purposes, rather than culinary, and was sued as vinegar around 1046.
During the Renaissance, noble families were passionate producers and consumers of balsamic vinegars, which had a legendary reputation for bringing people back from the dead. This was an exaggeration, of course, but those who tasted a few drops of real traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena were, in at least one sense of the word, transformed by its complex balance of aromas (sweet and spicy) and tastes (velvety but acidic).
The primary ingredients in traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena are found in the grapes produced in vineyards located in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The grape varietals used are Trebbiano and Lambrusco. The ideal conditions for their growth are listed in an Italian government decree which states that their cultivation must comply with specific characteristics and the geographic setting must be located on the foothills of the Apennines near those cities.
The territory actually plays a pivotal role in production of the unfermented juice pressed from the grapes, also called must. The soil is lightly calcareous and rich in micro-elements; the climate is a perfect blending of Mediterranean and Continental elements; and the late maturation of the grapes creates a high concentration of sugar, which influences the composition and favors the micro-organism activity that in turn generates the acetic transformation. In-depth analysis has demonstrated that both grapes' must needs to be receptive to the development of acetic bacteria to be ideal for the production of the precious vinegars.
There are four fundamental phases involved in obtaining traditional balsamic vinegar: the harvesting of the grapes, the crushing of the fruit, the cooking process involved in the developing of the must, and the aging period and techniques involved in the final stages.
Grapes are harvested in autumn, when the relation between sugar and total acidity is elevated. The selection of the grapes is performed in healthy territories, by human hand, where they are deposited in wicker baskets or wooden crates. These steps are crucial in guaranteeing the integrity of the fruit before the crush period. Must is then filtered and decanted so that it is separated from solid substances and impurities. Great must is achieved from well-ripened grapes with an outstanding sugar-acidity ratio, which is determined by a "must meter" or BABO that regulates glucose levels.
About four hours after the crushing, must is placed inside large copper or stainless steel vats and cooked for approximately two hours. Once cooked, must is cooled in large wooden crates and then stored in glass vats until the decanting procedure. The aging of traditional balsamic vinegar is perhaps the most delicate stage of the lengthy process. Many families apply specific rules and techniques in their aging rooms, or acetaie, and personalized methods have been passed on from generation to generation.
A cool, ventilated habitat and extremely hot weather favors the maturation and the evaporation of the product, while the frigid winter weather slows down the micro-organism activities while allowing decanting. Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, coriander and licorice are often used to impart the flavors of the typical Renaissance palate. The whole process is carefully calculated based on the season's climate, wind and temperature.
The number of the sequence of the wooden barrels used in the aging process is entirely personal. Each producer chooses a favorite wood and the setting for the acetaia, and selections are made based on personal flavor profiles and the quantity that they would like to obtain. Of course, the common tendency is to have a variety of barrels with different woods and diverse capacity.
The first barrel holds about 16 gallons and is made of oak, and as the vinegar ages in this barrel the sugar turns acidic. The second barrel holds roughly 13 gallons and is typically made of chestnut wood where the vinegar develops scent, taste, and color. In the third barrel made of cherry, the rich woody flavor continues to develop. The final two barrels are made of juniper and mulberry wood and dusted with ash on the inside.
Finished balsamic vinegars are drawn from the smallest and oldest barrels, but not drained completely. The system of "topping up" is similar to that of the solera used to make sherry. The starters, or "vinegar mothers," found in the bottom of the barrels are ancient bacteria used to convert the must into vinegar. The mothers have been passed down for centuries and are a precious necessity for traditional balsamic vinegar producers.
Traditional balsamic vinegar comes in two grades: those at least 12-years-old and those 25-years-old or older. Within these grades, the best kind of an artisan-made balsamic from Modena or Reggio. Second best are commercially produced balsamic vinegars from these two areas, including balsamic made from additives such as wine vinegar or sweeteners.
The best way to find a great balsamic is to taste it, but it's also the most expensive method. Look for a dark brown or black color similar to molasses, which is the ultimate outward characteristic of a good balsamic. It should be shiny and quite dense or syrupy. It should have a nice bouquet of complex yet well-balanced aromas that are strong and long lasting. It should also have a pleasing acidity. Its flavor should be proportionate between sweet and sour with noticeable acidity and light aromas from the various types of wood used during the aging process. And, always, if the bottle has a screw cap instead of a cork it's a sign of a lower-end brand. No grape deserves that kind of treatment, and no consumer deserves to settle for less than the best this ages-old process can offer.
In addition to operating his celebrated restaurants, Walter's Ristorante d'Italia being the jewel among them, the Spezia Foodsmiths, on organic natural market and café, all the providence, R.I. where he is based, Chef Potenza is the director of Chef Walter's Cooking School, located in both Italy and providence, R.I., and currently teaches culinary arts at the local technical high school.
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