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Authentic Southern Italian Cuisine
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Balsamic Vinegar – Elixir of Angels

June 23, 2012 Carlino's Restaurant no comments
“Sweet, tart, slightly smoky and rich with as many subtle overtones as a great wine”

With tasting notes of raisin, caramel, and oak; a smooth, enduring taste; and a bouquet of fine port, balsamic vinegar can be as enjoyable as a fine liqueur. Its complex taste – sweet, tart, slightly smoky and rich with as many subtle overtones as a great wine – takes years to develop. Considered an elixir to cure any ill by the monks who made it 700 years ago, balsamic vinegar has now  become a staple in Italian kitchens.

Unlike its common cousins, balsamic vinegar comes not from wine but from the grapes themselves. Instead of fermenting the grapes, vinegar makers press them and boil down the fresh juice until it becomes as thick as syrup. This concentrated syrup goes into an oak cask just like a fine wine. As the vinegar slowly evaporates, it goes into smaller and smaller casks. Vinegar makers call the portion that’s lost to evaporation “the angel’s share.” After years of maturation, the vinegar is ready to grace anything from a dish of fresh strawberries to slivers of Parmesan cheese.

Three Categories of Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar falls into one of three categories: traditional, condiment-grade and commercial balsamic vinegar.

The original balsamic vinegar ages for years or even decades before it’s enjoyed; a few brands even reach the century mark. Some families pass containers of the vinegar down through generations, and the casks are only breached for a momentous occasion like a large family wedding. Balsamic vinegar must age for at least twelve years to get certified as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale by the consortium that regulates this rare elixir. Only Modena and Reggio Emilia produce certified traditional balsamic vinegar.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is used exclusively as a finishing touch and is never cooked; cooking would destroy its complex taste. As thick as syrup and as dark as espresso, this vinegar can be as costly as a well-aged wine and fetch triple-digit sums.

Most of the balsamic vinegar you’ll encounter in fine restaurants is condimento vinegar. It undergoes the same process as its costlier counterpart, but it ages for less than a dozen years or comes from a region outside of the vinegar-producing regions of Italy. It’s typically more liquid and less syrup-like than traditional balsamic vinegar; it also has a milder flavor that lends it to a broader range of uses in the kitchen. Think of condimento balsamic vinegar as you would a good table wine – perfect to enjoy regularly and not just for special occasions. Add it to mixed fruits or to salad dressings to enhance their flavor without overwhelming them the way a concentrated traditional vinegar might.

Commercial balsamic vinegar undergoes very different processing from its more traditional cousins. It starts with red wine vinegar to which reduced grape juice and flavorings are added. These vinegars mimic the sweetness and tartness of balsamic vinegar, but lack its complexity. They also lack its price, so they’re a good choice for glazes that undergo cooking.

Sample a quality balsamic vinegar on Carlino’s house specialty fruit salad with mesclun greens, fresh fruits and Italian cheeses. While it may not be the panacea that medieval monks meant it to be, balsamic vinegar is an excellent cure for the garden-variety salad.

Sincerely, Carlo, Wali and all your friends at Carlino’s Restaurant

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