Ferrari's 360 Modena is one of its most iconic sports cars. The Ferrari journey began in 1939 in the North Italian town of Modena, the 360 celebrates that connection. There's another journey that began in Modena around four centuries ago, one that gourmands are familiar with - the story of balsamic vinegar. While vinegar existed in Italy for over two millennia, the first mention of an extremely refined vinegar goes back to 1000 AD, to the town of Canossa near the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Locals gifted a passing emperor a bottle of this vinegar. By the early 17th century, this officially became Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
Tradizionale Vs Modern:
I've met many Italian chefs across the world who treat the trademark bottles of traditional (Tradizionale in Italy) balsamic vinegar as prized possessions. They use it sparingly almost as if it were gold dust, sprinkling it on hard cheese and strawberries, elevating the flavours in the process. Modern balsamic vinegar is what you will find in your local supermarket. That's one of three types of Balsamic vinegar - the other two being the traditional versions from the neighbouring provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The grapes in these two provinces are deemed the best for balsamic vinegar because of the perfect concentration of sugars and acidity.
The two traditional vinegars from Reggio Emilia and Modena are protected with 'origin status', even the bottles specifications are pre-determined. This Tradizionale version is crafted with the reduction of pressed Tredbbiano and Lamrusco grapes. The thick syrup from this process - mosto cotto (in Italian) - is aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of barrels that follow a pre-designated sequence - oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, ash and juniper. Both regions use a labelling system to denote the age of the model - to qualify for a gold label in Reggio Emilia (vinegar has to be aged for 25 years or more). This traditional version is thick - it almost clings to the bowl and less tart, almost bordering on sweet.
The modern version follows a different manufacturing process. The grapes are harvested (by hand or by a machine), cold-pressed and then the fruits are separated from the stalks. The grape is cooked at 80 degrees centigrade. 'Grape must' (freshly crushed grape juice that contains the skins, seeds and stems of the fruit) is then mixed with with wine vinegar and transferred to wooden barrels - typically oak, chestnut, mulberry or juniper. There's no prescribed ratio but the mix should contain at least 20% of grape must, while the minimum for wine vinegar is 10%. The modern version is left to mature for at least 60 days in a region where the temperature is hot and humid in summer and cold and dry in winter. Many modern balsamic vinegars are aged for longer than two months. Over 90% of balsamic vinegar produced in Italy is exported.
Buying Balsamic Vinegar
All balsamic vinegars (including the modern version) produced in the region enjoy DOP - (Denomination of origin protection) status. Make sure you find this seal of approval in the bottle you buy from your neighbourhood gourmet store. The other thing to look for is the acidity percentage. This is never higher than 6% for balsamic vinegar. Most bottles also have an identification number and an expiry date - typically five years from the date of manufacture for the modern version. It's interesting that balsamic vinegar contains no traces of the balsam shrub; the Italian word balsamic o refers to the restorative properties of the vinegar.
Cooking With Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar adds a unique flavour profile and enhances the crunch of your veggies in a salad. I add a small quantity of balsamic vinegar when I make a Pasta al Pomodoro (tomato sauce). Add it along with chopped tomatoes, a teaspoon of extra virgin oil into the blender. This vinegar is a great addition for meat and seafood dishes.
How To Make A Balsamic Reduction:
You can 'reduce' modern balsamic vinegar to resemble the thick consistency of traditional vinegar. Here's how:
- Add the desired quantity of vinegar to a sauce pan and bring it to boil.
- Turn down the flame and simmer for ten minutes once it comes to boil. Keep tilting the pan to make sure the vinegar doesn't burn.
- Cool the reduced vinegar down for five minutes and transfer to a 'squeeze' bottle and refrigerate. You can use this to decorate food or add it as a glaze for salads and desserts.
Balsamic Vinegar Ice Cream
I learned this simple recipe from Chef Mickael Besse, who crafts all the desserts at Ecstasy, Sathyam Cinemas, one of Chennai's finest dessert studios.
- Bring about 20 ml of balsamic vinegar to boil in a small non-stick pan. Keep adding small quantities of sugar as you let the vinegar simmer. This reduces the tart taste of the vinegar.
- Let it cool down slightly before you pour this over vanilla ice-cream and quickly whisk it.
- Refrigerate the ice cream. You could serve it with fresh strawberries and a balsamic reduction glaze (optional)
Balsamic Vinegar Recipes
We bring you two recipes that go beyond just salad that showcase balsamic vinegar's distinct flavours:
Bucatini Modena, Pistachio
By Chef Mohammed Eliyaz
Alba, JW Marriott Hotel Bengaluru.
- Bucatini pasta: 80 gm
- Modena balsamic vinegar: 90 ml
- Egg yolk: 1 number
- Pecorino cheese (grated): 40 gm
- Butter: 50 gm
- Vegetable stock: 150 ml
- Crushed pistachio: 5 gm
- Crushed pepper: 02 gm
- Olive oil: 15 ml
- Parboil the pasta in boiling water and simultaneously put a pan with stock.
- Add balsamic vinegar to the pot and when the pasta is half done move it too to the stock pot
- Cook till "al dente."
- Add egg yolk, grated pecorino and butter.
- Pile it up and serve hot.
Balsamic Vinegar Risotto With Caramelised Fresh Fig
By Chef Mauro Ferrari
Focaccia, The Hyatt Regency, Chennai
- Carnaroli Rice (or Arborio rice): 120gm
- Chopped onions: 20gm
- Vegetable stock: 1 litre
- Balsamic vinegar: 30gm
- Butter: 50gm
- Parmesan cheese: 40gm
- Fresh figs: 2
- Custard sugar: 10gm
- Toss rice with onion and butter in low fame for 2-3 minutes.
- Add 20gm balsamic vinegar and wait for it to evaporate.
- Add vegetable stock and let it cook for 14 minutes.
- Remove it from the fire and add butter and parmesan cheese. Mix together vigorously.
- Cut the fig into four pieces and cook in a non-stick pan with 10gm butter, 10gm custard sugar and 10gm balsamic vinegar. Toss it for 1-2 minutes.
- Finally, serve risotto in the plate with caramelised fig on top and a drop of liquid reduction.
If you fancy cooking Italian at home, a bottle of balsamic vinegar is a bare essential, just like extra virgin olive oil. The key is to use balsamic vinegar sparingly. It's meant to accentuate the flavours not to make your salad or meat dish acidic or extremely tart.
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About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.