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When I launched Punk Domestics, it was in large part because of my own curiosity and desire to delve ever deeper into the world of DIY food. Watching the whole Charcutepalooza phenomenon explode was so gratifying, knowing that there were so many others out there who hungered to learn ever more challenging techniques. Now, I've made no small number of jams, pickles, charcuterie, cheeses, infusions and liqueurs and much more. I am always finding myself asking whether it's possible to recreate something in the commercial marketplace in the home. Balsamic was one of those things I wondered about.
After having been to Modena, I am clear that the answer is no. Or, at least, that it is so prohibitively far beyond the scope of the average food enthusiast as to be for all practical purposes impossible.
Now, to be perfectly clear, we are not talking about the dreck that lines the shelves of grocery stores, bottles full of cheap vinegar tainted with caramel coloring and corn syrup. There's nothing artisanal about that.
It's understandable to be confused. The problem is, there are several classifications of balsamic vinegar, all with awkwardly similar nomenclatures. And there is a time and place for them all, even the cheap grocery store stuff. Just don't call it aceto balsamico tradizionale unless you mean it.
At Acetaia Pedroni, we first saw the wood-fired steel cask where trebbiano grape juice is reduced. (Lambrusco grapes are also traditionally used at other acetiaie.) The reduced juice, also knows as mosto cotto or saba, is then conveyed into wooden casks.
Initially, the saba starts in larger casks, like normal wine casks. But then, over the course of no fewer than 12 years, as the juice ferments and reduces, it is transferred to increasingly smaller casks, five in all at Pedroni. The last is about the size of a breadbox. The openings on the casks are lightly covered to allow airflow.
This much I already knew about balsamico. Among the things I did not know is that the casks are also made of different kinds of wood. Five different woods are traditional, and the order used is proprietary to each house. At Pedroni, the order goes mulberry to start, followed by chestnut, cherry, juniper and finally oak. The casks are marked accordingly. (Castagno is chestnut.)
The same casks are used over and over again. Consequently, they get more and more seasoned with age, imparting increasingly complex flavor to the balsamico. Of course, acidity from the balsamico combined with microbial action eventually takes its toll on the casks, causing them to degrade. Leaks occasionally spring from flaws. But rather than throw away all that wonderful seasoning and age, when this occurs, they simply build a new cask around the old one, trapping in all the aged goodness once more.
Only when the balsamico has undergone this entire process, aging in casks for no less than 12 and up to or more than 25 years, can it be called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.
But, as mentioned before, there are variations, all legally called something along the lines of "balsamic vinegar." How do you know if you've got the real deal? Well, per the consortium, true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena must be sold in a special bottle, with a square base, a round body and a narrow neck, like so:
The other way you'll know is the dent in your bank account. At Pedroni, a 100-ml bottle of the youngest, a 12-year called Italo, goes for 50 EUR. The most prized, Cesare, will set you back 230 EUR. And they are among the more reasonable producers.
Don't faint. The reality is that a bottle of this stuff is likely to last you for quite a few years. This isn't something you would use on your salad. The best application is a scant drop or two over some hunks of parmigiano, or maybe on top of a grilled steak. The flavor is explosive -- acidic, yes, and more than a little sweet, but startlingly complex. The different varieties have taken different ages in the various casks, so each has its own profile. Some pop with notes of coffee leather; others are fruity. None of them taste like grocery-store brand.
Not ready to plunk down large for a bottle of the good stuff? Don't go into a shame spiral. There are options.
The next grade down is known as condimento, or Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP. This is made in very much the same way, but starting with a true vinegar that is then aged in the casks, and usually for less time. Still, it benefits from the seasoning in the casks, and you end up with something that is less viscous and complex, but still delicious. I fell in love with the Pedroni Aceto Balsamico di Modena Vecchio, and at 25 EUR, it fit my budget.
Finally, there is what you will find in your grocery store: Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Yes, it may be made in Modena. Or not. It is just vinegar, usually not very good at that. It is not aged in casks. Its color and viscosity come from caramel and corn syrup. Pedroni does not make this. I do not consume it.
Coming away from Pedroni, my hopes of aging saba in casks in my basement were dashed, and I had a deepened respect for the tradition. It is said that you do not make balsamico for yourself; you make it for your grandchildren. I just can't make that kind of commitment.