An Elixir from Italy
Balsamic vinegars first appeared in a poem written by an Italian monk about an event from 1046 when Henry II of Germany stopped in Piacenza on his way to Rome for his coronation and later reported its magnificence. Initially, nobility used balsamic vinegar for medicinal purposes. It was considered a valuable asset, and included in women's dowries as late as the 19th century.
Contrary to popular belief, balsamic vinegars are not made from wine. They are made from two types of grapes, Lambrusco (red grape) and Trebbiamo (white grape), grown locally. The juice of these grapes, called must, is cooked for 12-14 hours for traditional balsamic, and then placed in a glass barrel for fermentation. It is then aged into up to 9 wooden barrels made of different kinds of wood, including chestnut, cherry, mulberry, juniper, and lastly oak in gradually smaller sizes. Each kind of wood adds flavor and balance to the balsamic. As the vinegar ages and some of it evaporates, it is put in smaller barrels for the next round of aging. At certain steps in the aging process, some of the product is removed for the various products offered by Acetaia San Giacomo. Some of the must is cooked for 30 hours and bottled as Saba, a thick, sweet condiment used as a sweetener.
Balsamic vinegars aged 12 to over 25 years are considered "traditional" and comprise only 1% of all production. A consortium of producers from the region (in this case Reggio-Emilia) tastes at certain steps in the process to determine the ranking of the final product. Vinegars that are aged 3-5 years are not considered "traditional" but are just as tasty and valuable as a condiment. There are some cheap versions that aren't balsamic vinegar at all, but are red wine vinegar, caramel coloring and sugar. Be careful and check the label - look for "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale" from either Reggio-Emilia or Modena or 100% balsamic vinegar for the real stuff. The climate conditions of these regions, extreme heat in the summer and cold in the winter are perfect for the development of the vinegar.
The best way to use traditional balsamic vinegar is straight out of the bottle, dribbled on slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Parma ham, plain boiled fish or prawns or salads. Condiment products can be used in cooking, but should only be added at the very end of the process to maintain the aroma and taste.If you are in the Reggio Emilia region of Italy, a stop at Acetaia San Giacomo is well worth the effort. As they say in their website at www.acetaiasangiacomo.com, "A piece of Parmigiano a drop of balsamic vinegar and a glass of Lambrusco await."