Before heading out to lead Backroads trips in Italy, I had already gathered that Italians have an ongoing love affair with olive oil. However, I was almost completely ignorant of the pepper to this salt: balsamic vinegar. "Italian dressing" in my household was a mix of spices shaken with olive oil and white vinegar--no balsamic included--and I wouldn't consider putting the bitter stuff on ice cream. Not even in my dreams would I suppose that some balsamic vinegars cost hundreds of dollars for just a few ounces. I had a lot to learn.
For two months, I lived just outside of Modena, Italy, which is arguably the global capital of fine balsamic vinegar. I quickly embraced the true Italian dressing--salt, olive oil and balsamic vinegar drizzled over a salad--but I had no idea there was a wide range of quality in balsamic vinegar until my Italian friend arranged for a tour of an acetaio (a balsamic vinegar plant). The acetaio we visited was a small, family-run operation, and one of the sons led our tour. He explained that the process starts by crushing wine grapes and reducing the juice to a viscous syrup called mosto cotto. This syrup is then placed in wooden barrels (various types of wood are used) to age. The barrels are in sets that decrease in size, from the size of a beer keg down to a mini keg about 15 inches tall. The smallest barrel contains the oldest vinegar. Each year, the vinegar to be sold is taken out of the smallest barrel, and workers refill each barrel with liquid from the next larger barrel. The largest barrel is then filled with the new mosto cotto. Our tour guide took us from the barrel room to the tasting room. He handed us tiny spoonfuls of the black gold and explained the labels on the bottles. The balsamic vinegar gods that rule the national consortium judge the quality of each batch. The minimum quality of traditional balsamic vinegar receives a red label and must be aged for at least 12 years! Red label is used mainly as table vinegar to top salads and vegetables. The middle tier balsamic wears a silver label, which denotes a more complex vinegar that has aged somewhere between 18 and 25 years. Even my untrained palate could distinguish a difference in complexity between the vinegars, and I eagerly anticipated tasting the Holy Grail: gold label. To wear a gold label, balsamic vinegar must receive a score of at least 300 from the Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and it is usually aged over 25 years. That's an entire generation! Our guide described the anxious wait for the results from the consortium. The judges would taste the vinegar from the barrels, evaluate their quality and send their final judgment via email. Sometimes a 30-year-old barrel would score 299, and the family would be deflated. There's nothing they can do to change the vinegar at that point, so they bite the bullet and sell it under the less expensive silver label. When the email declares the much sought-after 300, it's time to P-A-R-T-Y! Just three ounces of gold label vinegar can easily sell for over $100. Our guide hesitated, searching for what else he could give us to taste besides the expensive gold, but his generosity won out and he gave us each a drop of the good stuff.
The play between acidity and sweetness when the thick balsamic vinegar hit my tongue sent me into a foodie daydream. I imagined putting a couple drops on top of a hunk of parmigiano-reggiano cheese or drizzling it over strawberries. It would even complement gelato! In this blissful state of tasting the vinegar, I almost talked myself into investing in a small bottle of the gold label. Three ounces would make it through airport security! My balsamic-induced delirium wore off when I remembered how many espressos and gelatos I still needed to buy, but I had definitely acquired a new appreciation for this Italian staple. Like the Italians who use it to top everything from salads to fruit and ice cream, I too now have an ongoing love affair with balsamic vinegar.