Black Gold: Balsamic Vinegar
The earliest reference to balsamic vinegar was recorded in 1046 when the Roman Emperor Henry III was gifted a bottle of the Black Gold during his visit to Reggio Emilia in Italy. For centuries, balsamic vinegar was being produced only for private family use, and the wooden barrels used in the aging process were handed down from generation to generation. And they often become part of a daughter’s dowry.
Balsamic Vinegar is considered as Italy’s Black Gold. And to obtain the exclusive title, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP with a gold seal, the production process must be under strict supervision by an official consortium. They are aged in wooden barrels for more than 25 years. It just goes to show that an exquisite balsamic vinegar is never mass produced!
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made with only one ingredient: GRAPE MUST – the freshly crushed grape juice with the skins, seeds and stems. The grape must is slowly cooked until it reaches about 50% concentration, and then matured in wooden barrels made of cherry, oak, juniper, chestnut, ash, or acacia.
Annual transfers are then made by skilful hands using methods kept as a family secret. The final product is taken from the smallest barrel, which has become very concentrated because of evaporation through the years. However, the barrel is never emptied, but it is topped up with vinegar from the next barrel, and so on, until the last barrel is filled again with cooked grape must.
Balsamic Vinegar has different grades:
1. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Protected Designation of Origin) – produced under the strict supervision of the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. It is packaged only in a distinctive light-bulb shaped bottle.
2. Condiment-Grade Balsamic Vinegar – It varies largely from one company to the next, but Leonardi produces Condimento Grade balsamic vinegar in the same process as the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. And these also have cooked grape must as the only ingredient.
3. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) – produced exclusively in Modena, Italy, and made by combining grape must and wine vinegar to balance the acidity.
4. Commercial-grade balsamic vinegar – these are mass-produced and the cheapest in the market. They tend to have extra ingredients such as caramel, colourings, flavourings, and thickeners to mimic the texture and complexity of real balsamic vinegar. (At Gourmet Grocery, we don't sell commercial-grade balsamic vinegar.)
These different grades are the reasons for a dramatic range in prices. A 68-gram bottle of 100-year old balsamic condiment goes for $880, while the classic 250-ml bottle of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP is priced at $12.00.
There are also other special types of balsamic vinegar that have been developed for gastronomic pleasures:
Here’s a way you can check if what you have is a good balsamic: put it in a clear glass jar and hold it against the light. Genuine balsamic vinegar is never black throughout, but brownish black. If it’s black all the way, it means the producer has added colourings.
Balsamic vinegar indeed has quite a few health benefits, is an outstanding aperitif and an excellent digestive. And it definitely makes a wonderful gift that no one can refuse!
Click here for the largest range of Balsamic Vinegar in Singapore.