When the subject is true balsamic vinegar, those in the know (like superchef Mario Batali) pause to give thanks.
Depending on whom you ask, balsamic vinegar is any number of things. To the average American consumer pushing a cart through the oversized aisles of the local wholesale club, it’s the one next to the red-wine and apple-cider varieties: thin, both sugary and highly acidic, with little viscosity, retailing for about four bucks a bottle. To the slightly more sophisticated home cook, it is a complex product of the white Trebbiano grape, hailing from the Italian provinces of Reggio Emilia or Modena, distinguished by its wide range of taste characteristics and prices. And, to the relative few, including New York’s Chef Mario Batali, who have had the good fortune to experience artisan-made balsamic, it is a near-sacred nectar whose value corresponds to no known monetary system.
Balsamic vinegar, says Batali, is characterized by “a balance between the sweetness, the acidity and the flavor of the wood. To me, it almost tastes like an incredibly deep white or red wine that has reached its maximum with wood, and yet there’s still an ample amount of fruit—that is, a very red or white wine. In terms of food, it smells like the cooling embers of a really good grill. It leaves you this smokiness, this rich, unctuous feeling of well-being. That’s what it brings out in me.”
Batali, a chef of strong flavors and stronger opinions, lived in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna for three years, perfecting his culinary and language skills and bearing witness to that region’s extraordinary food traditions, which have given the world such gifts as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma and balsamic vinegar. Having since opened three highly praised New York restaurants (Babbo, Lupa and Esca); authored two cookbooks (Simple Italian Food, Clarkson Potter and Mario Batali Holiday Food, Clarkson Potter); and starred in two series on television’s Food Network (Molto Mario and Mario Eats Italy), Batali remains passionate about the use of foods in their true season and, most importantly, foods made with the utmost respect for centuries-old tradition, of which true balsamic vinegar is the classic example.
What exactly does it mean to be a “true” balsamic? While each variety (supermarket, artisan-made, etc.) goes by the same name, the difference between them is as vast as that between Brunello di Montalcino and Mad Dog 20/20. At the top of the quality ladder is aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena (or, less commonly, di Reggio), artisan-made balsamic vinegar produced exclusively in those two provinces of Emilia-Romagna. Tradizionale is aged in a series of successively smaller wooden barrels, called batterie, for a minimum of 12 years. Unlike other vinegars, which begin as alcohol and are converted into acetic acid, true balsamic begins its life as sugar, in the form of the concentrated must of the Trebbiano (or, with less frequency, Lambrusco, Occhio di Gatto, Berzemino or Spergola) grape, which is then converted directly into acetic acid, with only the briefest appearance of alcohol. Each batch of this balsamic, in order to win approval by the official consortium of balsamic vinegar producers in Modena or Reggio, must undergo a rigorous battery of approximately 90 blind taste tests and earn enough points to earn the consortium’s seal of approval. Aceto tradizionale has an impossibly complex flavor that represents, in addition to a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, the characters of the oak, chestnut, cherry, ash and mulberry casks in which it is aged.
Author and radio host Lynne Rosetto Kasper, in her groundbreaking book, The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food (William Morrow), describes, upon tasting true balsamic in a Modenese acetaia, a flavor containing elements of “… browned meats, old Port, wood, herbs and only enough acid to give depth. This could not be called vinegar; its deep resonance all but hummed.”
According to Batali, a few carefully dispensed drops of this precious condiment will utterly transform the grilled meats you’ve anointed with the stuff. Paired with an Amarone (Batali swears by Giuseppe Quintarelli’s 1991 vintage), the combination is transcendent. If you’re lucky enough to have a Tuscan estate-produced extra-virgin olive oil, drizzle it on in an equally sparing manner. Grilled fish or roasted white meats are also prime candidates for a sprinkle of balsamic; to drink with these dishes, Batali recommends any of the Trebbianos from Abruzzo’s Valentini or, for heartier dishes, a young Morellino di Scansano. Fresh, seasonal fruits, especially berries, are reborn after being tossed with aceto tradizionale and freshly ground black pepper. A glass of Ca’ del Bosco Brut NV from Lombardy, or Moscato d’Asti from Forteto della Luja are two natural accompaniments to this quintessentially Italian dessert. Vanilla gelato or ice cream, made with the freshest milk, eggs and sugar, also sings under a drizzle of this vinegar; it also goes well with the Moscato. And, treated like a prized Cognac or Scotch, that is to say, sipped slowly and in small quantities, true balsamic makes a fine, if pricey, substitute for an after-dinner digestivo.
At approximately $75 an ounce, aceto tradizionale should be savored, no matter what the context. Although formal tastings of other vinegars traditionally feature the sucking of samples out of sugar cubes, balsamic should be tasted straight out of a special balsamic tasting spoon or cordial glass, to take full advantage of its complexity and make it smooth mouthfeel. Among Batali’s favorite true balsamics are those produced by the house of Malpighi and Acetaia del Cristo.
Occupying several rungs below the top are those vinegars that, while produced in the provinces of Modena or Reggio Emilia, have not been approved by the consortia. These balsamics are known as industriale, or commercial balsamic, and they are more readily available to the consumer in the United States than the artisinally produced variety. Unlike aceto tradizionale, there is no regulatory body governing the production and marketing of this type of balsamic vinegar. As a result, the quality and price of this product varies wildly. The best one can hope for with an industriale is a very high-quality vinegar that has either not been brought before one of the consorzi, or has fallen just below the minimum number of points that would make it a tradizionale.
Cesar Mazzetti, a Milan-based producer of balsamic vinegars under the Mazzetti and Acetum brands, insists that quality is vital to producers of commercial balsamic vinegars—and that price is important to both consumers and professional chefs. “Though tradizionale receives a lot of attention, its consumption remains limited to very few households,” says Mazzetti. “All—and I mean all—the most famous chefs are in fact using [commercial] balsamic vinegars in their recipes, while they limit their usage of tradizionale—whose cost can easily reach $1,000 per liter—to a few dishes.”
“The best of the commercial brands will still make a grilled ribeye steak or bowl of berries a much sexier dish,” says Batali, whose restaurants Babbo and Esca use both aceto tradizionale and industriale balsamic. “The sauce for Babbo’s goose liver ravioli combines high-quality industriale, reduced, with brown butter and little bit of starchy pasta cooking water,” he explains. “A splash of vinegar as [the butter] is turning that dark hazelnut brown, and take it off the heat. It’s like throwing an ice cube in a deep fryer—it immediately causes it to explode. It’s like reducing it at a high temperature very quickly. What’s left, if you hit it just right, is this almost syrupy kind of sauce, almost an emulsion. It’s intensely sweet and acidic at the same time, and is a perfect balance for the foie.” Babbo’s sommeliers often pair the ravioli with a vin santo, like the 1995 from Poggio Salvi, or the Avignonesi 1990, whose combination of Trebbiano, Malvasia and Canaiolo grapes underscores the balsamic connection.
Because of the relatively high cost of the best industriale, the menu at Lupa, Batali’s casual Roman-style trattoria, often features a cost-effective, homemade version of saba, the unfermented must of the Trebbiano grape that is lighter, sweeter and less intense.
What does Batali look for in an industriale? “Depth and balance of flavor, good, glass-coating viscosity, and no surprise notes in the aftertaste,” he says. Among the favorite brands at his restaurants and on his own table are Aceto Manodori and Compagnia Montale.
Medium-quality commercial balsamics may still have some of the character of true balsamic, but have often been diluted with wine vinegar or some excess sugar, making comparisons with the real thing an apples and oranges situation. As the price for a medium-quality commercial balsamic is generally (but not always) lower than a high-quality selection, Batali suggests using it to enliven sauces, soups or the fruit component of a pie or tart, and to select wines from the suggestions above. He warns, though, that, despite its lower cost, a cook should still use a judicious hand in its application. “A big mistake that people often make with vinegars is to get too excited and over-acidify a dish,” he explains. “There should always be a balance. You aren’t going to need more than two tablespoons for six quarts of liquid. One of my favorite tricks to bring your medium-grade balsamic a little closer to the real thing is to put the entire bottle in a small saucepan on the stove and reduce it down to one-third its original volume. Not only does it intensify the flavor of a wimpy vinegar, but it cuts down on a person’s tendency to try and influence a dish with too much of a good thing. For the home cook who’s not about to spend 100 bucks on a bottle of vinegar, that’s what I recommend. And it’s a nice trick.” According to Kasper, some commercial balsamics good for everyday cooking include those made by Rusticella and Caravini.
Clinging like barnacles to the bottom rung of the quality ladder are mass-produced, low-quality balsamics whose very use of the name is an affront to the real thing. Often little more than red-wine vinegar and appalling amounts of sugar, and tasting, as Batali says, like “Coca-Cola and your high-school gym locker.” Enough said.
Laurie Woolever is a freelance writer and a graduate of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the French Culinary Institute in New York. Her work has previously appeared in Paper, Time Out New York and The Los Angeles Times.
MARIO BATALI’S “DIRT” THING
Q Is your style of cooking far beyond the Italian food we’re used to?
Q Do you prefer the food of any particular region in Italy?
The cuisine is so much a natural part of every single convoluted part of the dirt of Italy. So whether you’re in the top of the mountains in Piemonte or Calabria, it just tastes great when you’re there. And it makes so much sense. That’s what makes it such an exciting cuisine: their reliance on local ingredients and their reluctance to ship things very far that makes things taste better.
Q What is your approach to pairing wine and food?
Q You serve only Italian wines. Why is that?
And that’s why cotecchino sausage or the dishes from Emilia, like the Parmigiano Reggiano, taste so good with the balsamic vinegar, because it’s literally born in the same soil and wind and rain. It’s a spiritual thing, but it’s a chef thing too. It’s both … in my case, at least. Many people just taste and that’s good. For me, a lot of different flavors and flavor combinations can become very spiritual.