Dec 10th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog

Most of what’s sold as balsamic vinegar is just red wine vinegar sweetened with caramelized sugar and has no relation to the real stuff. But it’s cheap to make and generates nice profit margins for manufacturers willing to capitalize on gullible shoppers. Traditional balsamic vinegar, aceto balsamico in Italian, begins with the freshly pressed juice of Trebbiano grapes. The juice or must is cooked down to about 30% of its original volume, then it begins the slow aging process in a set of barrels made from different woods called a batteria.

Each year, if the vinegar maker thinks it’s good enough, some of the vinegar from the last barrel in the batteria is removed. That barrel is topped up from the next oldest, and the process moves up the line with some of the newly reduced must going into the first barrel. A batteria may only yield a few liters of vinegar every year.

Profumi Estensi, Real Good Food’s supplier of traditional aceto balsamico, works with vinegar makers who produce balsamico on a very small scale, primarily for their family and friends. They’re willing to sell a little to offset their costs, which can reach hundreds of euros every year. On our last trip to Italy we met Sergio, one of these producers in Modena.

Sergio unlocked the doors to an unassuming building behind his house. Balsamic vinegar is a popular target for thieves since it’s so valuable, so most small producers keep their operations secret. We climbed a steep ladder up into the attic to the acetaia (ah-che-taya or vinegar works). The vinegar has been traditionally made in attics that provide heat in the summer to aid evaporation, but commercial balsamic producers have abandoned this approach. Hunched under the low ceiling, we followed Sergio as he flipped back the cloth squares covering the evaporation holes on the tops of the barrels; he handed us small spoons that we dipped into the thick balsamico.

Only a handful of people ever get to see a family acetaia, and we felt incredibly privileged. Sergio inherited some of his barrels from his father, and he grew up learning how to mix vinegar from the different barrels in the batteria to get the complex flavor of true aceto balsamico. Watching him move among the barrels and seeing his eyes light up as he talked about the vinegar, we both wondered how he could bear to part with a single batteria

Real Good Food imports two of Sergio’s vinegars, one from the younger end of the batteria, sweeter but remarkably complex, and and an older balsamico, from the last barrel in the batteria. They’re not meant for dressing salads, but are best eaten with rich, savory foods. Here in the Pacific Northwest, wild salmon served with a few drops shows off traditional balsamic’s powerful flavor and ability to enhance food. In the early Spring, pair the vinegar with ripe strawberries or fresh, soft-ripened cheese. In cool weather, try roasted winter squash with a drizzle of balsamico.

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