The Best Balsamic Vinegar: Pick, Buy, Blow Your Mind

By Melissa Schneider July 11, 2013 No Comments

Foodies of the world, listen up!

A few years ago, my husband and I traveled to Italy just before Christmas.  Oh my…if there is one thing that makes me want to drop all ambitions in life and wile away my days eating at wonderful restaurants, it’s a trip to Italy.  As we wandered the festooned streets one afternoon, snacking on focaccia and drinking espresso at stand-up counters, we stumbled upon a little salumeria (deli).

Drizzled MagicThe shopkeeper ushered us in, added a few drops of some viscous brown sauce to Parmesan cheese, and proffered her snack.  We gratefully accepted, and I was completely unprepared for that little bullet of flavor.  “What IS that?”  I sputtered, not sure whether the cheese or the vinegar or both was creating this flavor explosion.  It was the best balsamic vinegar I had ever had, by a mile.

“It is condiment balsamico,” she smiled.  Well, we bought her balsamico and her cheese post-haste, picked up a loaf of fresh bread and red wine on the way, and had a mini-feast on the steps of a town square near our hotel.

When I got home, I grew more curious about that vinegar.  Why had I only ever tasted runny, watery, thoroughly mediocre balsamics before?  What made the salumeria lady’s stuff so special?  I did a little research and chuckled at the irony:  I was this excited and we hadn’t even tried the best stuff!  What we ate was the Condimento, which is apparently not as high-end as the Tradizionale, production of which is strictly controlled and overseen by a special consortium of vinegar snobs in Modena, Italy.  Modena is, of course, the birthplace of balsamic vinegar, and artisan production is believed to date back to the Middle Ages.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is crafted directly from unfermented grape “must,” rather than from wine.  The must is boiled and aged in specialty wooden barrels for many years, until it oxidizes and becomes vinegar.  Authentic balsamic vinegar is actually aged for 12 to 25 years, creating a wonderful molasses-like syrup that will blow your mind.  This stuff is uber-gourmet and should basically only be meted out with a pipette to accent fine foods or great Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.  (Though “accent” is the wrong word—whallop is more like it).

To be assured of buying authentic balsamic vinegar, try our wonderful artisan products from Home Appétit, and always look for the seal of the “Consorzio Tradizionale” (the aforementioned consortium of vinegar snobs).  An authentic balsamic made in Modena will be labeled “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” and coded “API MO.”  One made in the Reggio Emilia province (the region surrounding Modena) will be coded “API RE.”

If you do treat yourself to vinegar heaven, please don’t mix this vinegar into a salad dressing or marinade or dilute it in any way.  A delicacy like this should be enjoyed full-strength and unadulterated.  You don’t open up a great bottle of wine to make a wine sauce, now do you?  My recommendation:  get fantastic bread, Parmesan cheese, and strawberries.  Grab one or two people you love, but be choosy.  Then, sit around and dunk everything in the vinegar—a tiny dribble is enough.  Try some today–or give your favorite foodie the best gift ever.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user CristianoCarli

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