The passion of the Italians for good food has long held the world's palate in awe. Mouth-watering salad dressings and condiments such as high-quality balsamic vinegar are a staple in many pantries, helping from the home cook to the executive chef to whip up sumptuous dishes for their guests. The versatility of this one product makes it fit for an emperor and perfect for a salad dressing. Just a touch of balsamic vinegar can work wonders for just about any culinary purpose - great for replacing refined sugar in homemade tomato sauce, chili and stews, an accompaniment to a gourmet cheese platter, a dip for cooked meats, and even for baking tasty cookies and cakes.
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The story of balsamic vinegar easily aligns with a theme such as 'From Humble Beginnings to Worldwide Fame.' The little known, locally celebr ated vinegar of the Emilia-Romagna region, now modern Italy, started gaining wider recognition after a bottle of the condiment was gifted to royalty passing through a small Italian town. Since then, balsamic vinegar has smoothly made its way across the world and developed an undeniable reputation for itself as a master cook's delight.
Where it all began
When one stops to think of its journey from local to worldwide fame, it's not hard to form the perception that the condiment's first stint with royalty was a precursor to its now widely enjoyed fame. The Italian wonder's walk of global fame from the wine presses of two specific Italian towns to the rest of the world began from as far back as 1046 when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, en transit through a town in the provinces of Reggio Emilia to his coronation, was given a silver bottle of the vinegar. The vinegar was only known to the locals of the provinces of Reggio Emilia where Henry was visiting, and neighbouring Modena. History records that visit as possibly being the first time balsamic vinegar appeared in written reference. Balsamic vinegar is referred to by some as the granddaddy of vinegar and it has been produced in Modena and Reggio Emilia since the Middle Ages.
What is balsamic vinegar?
Balsamic vinegar is made from grape juice/grape must, but it’s not a wine vinegar because the juice used is unfermented - there is no fermentation stage during the aging process. The vinegar is a reduction specifically made from the white sweet Trebbiano grapes. You can tell balsamic vinegar aside from regular vinegar as it is thicker and has a sweet-tart/strong fruity but tart taste, a combination that makes for a good taste even when sampled plain. The taste is similar to that of black vinegar except for the smoky flavour. Another taste that may hit the palate when sampling balsamic vinegar is that of pomegranate molasses, but less fruity.
Protecting true traditional balsamic vinegar
The rise in popularity of balsamic vinegar saw an increase in derivative products which prompted a move by the European Union to protect true traditional balsamic vinegar. The EU created a designation, Denominazione di Origine Protetta (D.O.P), for the product that stands as an EU certification that guarantees the quality, production, and place of origin of an ingredient, which for high-quality traditional balsamic vinegar is the grape must. The fact that this D.O.P. designation was only limited to protecting real traditional balsamic vinegar meant there was no such designation for mass market balsamics. The move to address this gap came in 2009 when the European Union introduced the I.G.P. designation. This designation guarantees that the product you purchase was in fact made from varieties of grapes that are archetypal of Modena (Trebbiano, Fortana, Albana, Ancellotta, Lambrusco, Montuni, and Sangiovese). However, in order to meet global demands, the grapes can be sourced from anywhere but must be processed in Modena.
An understanding of the varieties of balsamic vinegar will allow you to select the one that is just right for the purpose it will serve. For example, well-aged balsamic vinegar, that's those aged for 12 to 150+ years, gives best results when used after the cooking process is complete. It is also best used in dishes that are mild - not spicy or heavily seasoned - as this will allow it to hold its own. Well-aged balsamic vinegar is excellent for flavouring meat such as your fish, chicken, steak, or veal.