Balsamic vinegar is a sensory delight. Its concentrated flavors and aromas form the backdrop for many culinary creations, but it stands on its own as a product that speaks of history, tradition, and at one time, great privilege.
Its legacy can be traced to 11th century Emilia-Romagna, which lies just west of Bologna in Northern Italy. As the legend has it, the ruling family in the area, by the name of Este, produced rich, sweet, barrel-aged vinegars with a thick, almost syrupy consistency. Families in the region made balsamic vinegar for themselves, using it as a drink, a health tonic, and to enjoy in food and drink. At one time, it was even believed to be a remedy for the Black Plague!
Each family held its own supply and passed it on to the next generation. New barrels were introduced upon the birth of a child, and it was gifted to young couples at weddings or special friends and VIPs.
How Balsamic Vinegar is Made
Barrels were filled with grape must—a by-product of the winemaking process that consists of grape skins and other solid extract—and fermented, often for several years. The barrels were kept in the attics of homes, allowing the liquid inside to evolve slowly over time with very little intervention. Temperatures skyrocketed in summer and plunged in the winter, creating a sweet, fruity, unctuous product coveted by all who experienced it.
Around 1747, it began to be known as aceto balsamico, the word balsamic derived from the root word “balm,” meaning a tonic or healing elixir.
There is no other type of vinegar that ages as well as balsamico, nor is there another that commands its value. Though rare, these products can age up to 200 years, with per-ounce prices higher even than the finest wine.
Balsamic vinegars are aged for a minimum of 3 years. Those less than 20 years old are considered “youngsters,” but precious, nonetheless. Tiny droplets on hard, salty cheeses or sweet, juicy, fresh strawberries burst forth with flavor, evoking centuries of history and tradition in a single taste.
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