Used to elevate salads and complement strawberries, Raymond Blake discusses the tradition and character of arguably the greatest condiment of them all.
Mention the Italian city of Modena to any self-respecting petrol head and watch their eyes widen and perhaps their lips tremble as their thoughts turn to dramatically-styled Ferraris with engines howling and tyres squealing, as the boy racer in them comes to the fore. Modena sits at the heart of the Emilia-Romagna province in northern Italy and, while today it is invariably associated with blood red automobiles decorated with a prancing horse on the bonnet, it is also home to another less attention-grabbing product of far more ancient lineage: Aceto Balsamico di Modena, balsamic vinegar, arguably the finest condiment in the culinary world.
The balsamico production process starts with the heating of grape must, obtained from seven specified varieties including well-known wine grapes Lambrusco, Sangiovese and Trebbiano. This practice dates back to Roman times and it reduces the must to about one-third of its original volume. As with whiskey, a small quantity of caramel may be added (no more than two per cent) to regulate the colour. It is then transferred to wooden barrels to begin the ageing process that sees it reduced much further until it emerges as the viscous, black-as-knight liquid that can sell for as much as the most expensive perfume. It was once believed that balsamico had health giving powers and was used as medicine – if the warm glow of satisfaction it gives can be considered a medical benefit, then it still is.
Tradition is everything with balsamico. The ageing process for the finest examples takes place in the roof spaces of people’s houses in the region of production, where the sweltering summer temperatures promote evaporation and concentration, while in the humid winter the complex flavours develop slowly. As it reduces, it is transferred through a series of barrels, made from different woods such as chestnut, oak, mulberry and juniper, diminishing in size to accommodate the precious nectar. The production region is strictly delimited and is confined to Modena and Reggio Emilia close to the Po river, where the grapes develop the desired sugar-acid balance. The climate might be described as ‘continental-lite’, with its extremes ameliorated by the nearby Adriatic sea. Genuine balsamico is only produced here and its authenticity is protected by IGP status from the European Union: Indicazione Geografica Protetta.
The best balsamico has what can only be described as a ‘Russian doll’ flavour, unfolding and unfolding to reveal layer after layer of sweet, savoury, fruity, tangy, persistent delight. Above all, that flavour is balanced, there are no harsh edges, no eye-watering pricks of acidity or throat-catching harshness on the finish; simply a rounded sphere of endlessly satisfying flavour. Though it might be strictly correct to call it vinegar, to do so is to liken it to the stuff we souse our chips with, a solecism on a par with likening a Trabant to a Ferrari.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food: “This densely perfumed brew needs to be used with respect for its qualities.” Hear, hear, we say. Balsamic’s combination of concentrated fruit and savoury tang make it extraordinarily versatile and suitable for enhancing the flavour of a wider range of foods than we might at first imagine. Its most obvious and popular use is in salads, the simpler the better. Let the finest greens you can muster be elevated into something memorable by a splash of good olive oil and a dribble of balsamico. If you are feeling flush, a few drops stirred into your best beef gravy will wow your dinner guests and have them pleading for your secret recipe. Don’t be afraid to be adventurous: balsamico is memorably wonderful on proper vanilla ice cream and magnificent on strawberries. Use our own Wexford strawberries, perfect at this time of year, and not the bloated behemoths we see too many of these days – they are flabby and flavourless, and not even the finest balsamico could raise them from flavour limbo. Some suggest a few drops on parmigiano reggiano, though I find the combination a little overwhelming, an embarrassment of riches, each on its own has enough to say for itself – it’s like two divas singing the same aria simultaneously and trying to outdo each other, the tussle being carried out on your palate.
AND TO DRINK
The drinks world is currently in the grip of cocktail fever, with the technicolour concoctions enjoying a popularity not seen since the roaring twenties. Inevitably, given its exhilarating flavour and intense colour, balsamico is now used by adventurous mixologists as they strive to create ever more exotic flavour combinations. Traditionalists might baulk at such a practice but replacing the Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco in a bloody mary with balsamico could have interesting results. And a ‘pink’ gin made with it, instead of angostura bitters, would set the taste buds reeling. A drop or two swirled into a glass of tonic water makes for an interesting non-alcoholic cocktail. Notwithstanding balsamico’s attraction as a cocktail ingredient, I’ll save mine for my salad.