Sure, you can buy something that says ‘balsamic vinegar’ on the label, but it won’t be true balsamic. It will be a distant cousin known in the industry as ‘commercial grade’ vinegar and here's why.
How old is balsamic vinegar?
The balsamic vinegar you’re adding to your salad isn’t a new. The first records of balsamic comes from 1046 with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III was passing through what is now Reggio-Emilia in Italy (just down the road from the town of Modena - the place that often appears on your balsamic label). When he passed through the town, he was given a silver bottle containing a popular local vinegar – which was balsamic.
Is all balsamic vinegar made in Modena, Italy?
One thousand years later, and balsamic is still being made in the same town, and in fact is still only made in Reggio-Emilia and Modena. To be fair, this all becomes a little confusing because that vinegar masquerading as balsamic you are buying from the supermarket will often have ‘of Modena’ on the label – more on that in a moment.
The production of traditional balsamic is highly regulated by EU Protected Designation of Origin regulations that requires production to meet thorough standards and process for the product to be called traditional balsamic vinegar; including it can only come from Reggio-Emilia or Modena. But there are loop holes. For example, for a balsamic to say it’s from Modena it just needs to be bottled in Modena irrespective of where the grapes came from (often China for example) or how they were processed, even if the grapes were shipped in from China.
Which is why your supermarket balsamic is masquerading as true balsamic from Modena – however it can never claim to be traditional balsamic or claim to have DOP/DOC or even IGP status. It’s balsamic in name only.
What is traditional balsamic?
Balsamic vinegar starts with grapes, which must be the Lambrusco and/or Trebbiano varieties; sweet local grapes typically harvested late in the season. They are then pressed whole (i.e. juice, skin and stems) to form the ‘must’ which is then slowly cooked over a direct flame until concentrated to half the original volume.
The concentrated must is then left to ferment for a few weeks. Once it’s reached the correct level of fermentation, it’s added to casks – which must be made from oak - not just any casks, they must be made from chestnut, cherry, juniper or mulberry – and stored in a cool, dry place and left to mature for at least 12 years.
Some balsamic has been aged for 25 years, some over 100 – although no surprise, the longer the ageing process the more expensive. However, the balsamic is not just left there to sit on its own for 12+ years; there’s a constant process of nurturing and gentle intervention that occurs. As such there’s not one cask in itself, it’s a series of six or so casks of descending volume – finishing with one very small cask from which the annual allotment to bottle comes. Let me explain…
When the must is ready to go into the cask, it goes into the largest cask where there will already be balsamic from previous years. As the balsamic ages it thickens and loses volume to evaporation (the evaporation is traditionally known as the ‘angels share’) and if you just left it for the maturing process, you may be left with little or no balsamic.
Instead, the process will be assessed, and a small amount of vinegar will be taken from the largest cask and added to the second largest cask, to make up the lost volume. A small amount will then be taken from that cask, and added to the next cask down. And so on ,until you get to the smallest cask. This process is known as solera – or fractional blending. And then it’s only the vinegar from the smallest cask that is drained, and bottled that year. This is also why the flavour of a balsamic can change from year to year, as the end product is actually a mixture of ages, with an advertised minimum. In short – it’s a pretty complex and labour intensive process.
What does balsamic vinegar taste like?
Traditional balsamic should be thick, glossy and dark brown with a velvety texture on the tongue. As you can imagine after the ageing process, the flavour should be rich and complex and definitely with no harsh acidity (like supermarket balsamic) but a lovely mellow tartness.
How do I know what is true balsamic vinegar?
First, you’re not going to find it in the supermarket.
Second - and unfortunately - it’s not going to be cheap; although a little does go a long way and it should never be wasted by adding to cooking! It’s best reserved for a few drops on strawberries, cheese, fior di latte gelato or dessert. However, as with all food – just because something is expensive it doesn’t mean it is good quality. Here’s a few things to look out for.
Traditional balsamic only comes in 100ml bottles of a specific shape.
If from Modena it will bulb shaped - thin top and rounded bottom
If from Reggio Emilia the shape is more like an inverted tulip.
Bottles are always wax sealed and carry identifying numbers.
The ONLY ingredient will be grape must. If there’s sulphites or anything else, it’s not traditional. Commercial grade products will even have guar gum or cornflour to try and imitate the thickness of traditional balsamic.
Colour is another give-away, not the balsamic but the packaging. If from:
Modena a white cap indicates 12+ years and a gold cap 25+ years.
Reggio Emilio a red label indicates 12+ years, silver 18+ and gold 25+.
What about balsamic condiment?
I’m a fan of these as it can be a really affordable way to get an almost traditional balsamic; think of this as the cousin of balsamic (as opposed to supermarket balsamic which is a distant cousin, about 13 times removed). I use this at home, along with traditional balsamic.
These products may be labelled condimento balsamico, salsa balsamica or salso di mosto coto. They’re often made by the producers of traditional balsamic vinegar, just with a slightly different process; or outside of Reggio-Emilo or Modena. The only problem is trying to identify quality, because not all condiment is created equal either. And it goes back to the same standards, you won’t find a quality balsamic condiment at the supermarket, nor will it be cheap – although it will be a lot cheaper than traditional balsamic. Some of my favourite uses
My very favourite use of true balsamic is a few drops on a quality fior di latte, or vanilla, gelato.
After that, I love a few drops on fresh strawberries or a quality piece of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Or (whole) boiled purple sweet potatoes with a sprinkling of salt (they taste like roasted chestnuts with a little balsamic – delicious).
And a parting note - please do not mix traditional balsamic with olive oil to make a salad dressing. You’ve paid too much to dilute this beautiful product.
Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@carolineattwood