Spain has its Jamon Iberico, an incredibly delicious cured ham. According to HamLovers.com, “only Spain has the special black Iberian pigs, the particular climate, the vast oak forests and centuries of traditional expertise that go into making this unique gourmet delicacy”.
We could debate how much of this is truth and how much is clever marketing. We could also have differing opinions on whether climate and age-old techniques (and all the other special characteristics) really make significant differences. Regardless of what we decide, regardless of whether or not we acknowledge the differences and agree to pay the typically premium price to enjoy them, the fact remains that certain products will continue to be considered special in the culinary world.
There are three foods that I consider to be unique to Italy: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma, and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena – all from the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. (Should we be seeing a trend here?) I have already extolled the merits of Parmigiano-Reggiano; and I will have some comments about prosciutti at a later time. Today, I will focus on aged balsamic vinegars.
Many of the balsamic vinegars sold in the United Sates are not aged at all, but are (usually wine) vinegars with caramel coloring and flavoring added. As I hope to convince you here, even a few years of aging is better than none. The words I used to describe wine and cheese in an earlier blog apply here, too. All balsamic vinegars are good, but some are better than others. In this case, however, some are really, really better than others! Allow me to explain.
Authentic Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (sometimes called TVM for short) is made only in and around Modena, Italy. Only six varieties of grapes grown in the province of Modena can be used, and it is required that the grape skins and juice (called musto in Italian) be cooked for at least 12 hours. The cooked musto is placed in wooden barrels to begin an aging process that lasts a minimum of 12 years, and in some cases, as many as 25 years or more. The aging process is very complex and involves adding “younger” vinegars to “older” ones.
There are even more restrictions. According to the official production rules, to “earn” the right to label a product Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, the aged vinegar must pass a series of “analytical and organoleptic” examinations. (Note: When I read this I had no idea what organoleptic examination meant. It simply means “tasting it”!). Vinegars that pass these tests also are required to be marketed in traditionally-shaped bottles, with very specific labels, and a red wax seal.
Lastly, there are at least three competing regulating groups in Emilia Romagna and they seldom agree with each other. There are regulations that ban printing the barrel age on the label (because all vinegars, regardless of barrel age, have had younger vinegars added periodically), but few producers follow them – especially for the export market.
As you can imagine, after a quarter-century of aging, the TVMs passing all the tests are magnificent. They are dark and richly flavored, with a perfect balance of sweetness and tartness. Only a few drops are necessary to enrich the flavor of the foods they traditionally accompany: hard cheeses (especially the king of cheeses), salumi (cured sausages), and eggs – especially eggs. Actually, you can serve TVM with almost anything. Believe it or not, it is even delicious on vanilla ice cream!
As you probably guessed by now, TVMs can be expensive. They are, at least by my definition, but even if price isn’t a major issue, selecting a TVM isn’t easy. If you have the time and inclination, take a look at some of the TVM offerings at Amazon.com. There are many other sites, of course. I mention this one only because you’ll quickly see why selecting a TVM can be difficult.
After all this, I can’t leave you without some kind of recommendation, but before I do that there is one other point I need to make. As a rule of thumb, the price of an authentic TVM – one that has passed all the necessary tests – sells in the United States for about $50 an ounce. Regardless of the bottle’s label, shape, or seal, anything selling for less is not authentic. Period!
As you will see if you visit the site I just suggested, however, there are several (faux authentic) vinegars selling for much less than $50 an ounce. While it would be foolish to generalize about these less costly vinegars, for the most part they are vinegars that, for whatever reason, did not pass all the required tests, or weren’t aged long enough to qualify for the tests. That doesn’t make them unacceptable in any way; in fact, they actually can be quite good – even superb.
So my recommendation is this: whether you are on-line or in your favorite grocery store (or better yet, in an Italian grocery store), visit the balsamic vinegar section and select one that fits your budget – just be sure that it is an aged vinegar. I prefer one that has been aged for 10 to 12 years. The price is always reasonable and I have never been disappointed in the taste. It will also last for years!
Many of you already know what aged vinegars can contribute to so many different foods. If you haven’t yet tried one, I hope I have tempted you to add Aceto Balsamico di Modena to a future shopping list!
P.S. Oh, and there's one more Italian goody for you to consider. Some of the cooked (but unfermented) grape must prepared in the TVM process is also bottled and sold separately. It is called Saba. Saba has an intense grape flavor with almost fig-like overtones, but with no hint of acidity. It, too, is served traditionally with hard cheeses and salumi. It is also a delicious accompaniment to baked squash. You can find Saba on line and in most Italian grocery stores.