Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

I was 28 when I first tasted traditional balsamic vinegar. My husband and I had traveled to Italy on our honeymoon, and our penultimate stop was Modena, in the central-northern region of Emilia-Romagna. This area is best known for treasures like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Parma ham, and tortellini. Modena, alongside Reggio Emilia, is also the homeland of balsamic vinegar.

Although, like many Americans, I only became aware of the stuff in the early 2000s—the heyday of the spinach, strawberry, and goat cheese salad—balsamic vinegar has ancient origins. Its existence was first recorded in the 11th century.

Today, the production of traditional balsamic vinegar, or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale D.O.P.

(“Denominazione di Origine Protetta”), is highly regulated. Whole grapes (typically Trebbiano and Lambrusco) are pressed, cooked down, and fermented. Finally, they are aged in a progression of wooden barrels—each smaller than the last—for a minimum of 12 years. The vinegar is poured into bulb-shaped bottles, sealed with wax, and color-coded according to its age, starting with red (“affinato”; 12 years), then silver (“vecchio”; 15–20 years), and gold (“extravecchio”; 20–25 years).

My husband and I learned about this process as we zig-zagged through rows of meticulously numbered barrels at the Acetaia Malagoli Daniele on the outskirts of Modena’s city center. At the end of our tour, we finally sat down to taste a few drops of each vintage—both on their own and with a crumbling bite of Parmigiano-Reggiano—and the experience changed everything I thought I knew about balsamic.

These vinegars were velvety and glossy, like chocolate syrup—a complex combination of sweet, smoky, fruity, and tart. This vinegar is not for cooking, we were firmly told. Like the best olive oil, it’s used only for finishing—on fruit, cheese, and even desserts. Our hosts at the acetaia swore it was the best topping for vanilla ice cream. (And they’re not wrong.)

On this side of the Atlantic, balsamic vinegar generally comes in two types: the thin, highly acidic addition to dressings and vinaigrettes, and the thick, sugary balsamic glaze. Both contain additives like wine vinegar and, for the latter, often cornstarch and caramel coloring; and both can vary in age and origin. Neither comes close to the “black gold” you’ll find in Modena. But the varieties in the US are accessible—and affordable—unlike many of their traditional cousins. So when I’m craving the real thing, I’ll make a balsamic reduction.

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