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In the culinary arts, it’s not common practice to let vinegar stand on its own. But Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is a remarkable exception.
Richly dark and concentrated, this flavor bomb can be drizzled over mozzarella in a caprese salad, over fresh strawberries, or even on ice cream. Chefs and home cooks in the know likely have a bottle of it in their arsenal.
That’s the power of Aceto Balsamico di Modena—real balsamic vinegar, not to be confused with the imitations that abound on supermarket shelves.
The real deal hails exclusively from the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, where it’s crafted under strict regulations and matured in wooden barrels and casks, producing a bright deep brown liquid with a complex, tangy flavor. Versatile and balanced, its desirability lies in its ability to harmonize the flavors of any dish.
Centuries in the Making
Before balsamic vinegar conquered kitchens and palates, it helped win battles. Early versions of the elixir kept the Romans marching: No one fights well on an upset stomach, and cooked grape must, the base of today’s Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, was considered a digestive tonic. From foot soldiers to Julius Caesar himself, it cured what ailed them. In the kitchen, meanwhile, the Romans used it as a sweetener and a condiment for meat.
If you wanted to impress an emperor, you might get him a bottle. In 1046, Bonifacio, the Marquis of Tuscany, did just that, presenting the liquid gold to Holy Roman Emperor Henry III. This gift of “very perfect vinegar” was deemed important enough to be recorded in writing.
But that special vinegar wasn’t exclusive to royalty: Families in the countryside of Modena and Reggio Emilia made their own batches in home “acetaias,” or vinegar cellars, passing down recipes and vinegar-aging barrels for generations. A fine batch of aged vinegar made an excellent dowry. The first acetaias in Modena date back to the Middle Ages, and regional cookbooks listed multiple styles and uses.
The term “Balsamico” first appeared in 1747, in a register from the cellars of the dukes of Este, rulers of the Duchy of Modena and Reggio Emilia. From then on, this land was forever bound with the proper name of that perfect vinegar.
Perhaps you’ve heard of how many bottles of extra virgin olive oil are not, in fact, extra virgin, nor even purely olive oil. Similarly, as Balsamic Vinegar of Modena grew in reputation and popularity, cheaply made copycats with misleading labels flooded the world market.
Without opening a bottle, how could one tell if it was the real deal from Modena, or a thin, sour imposter of unknown provenance?
In response to the crisis, producers in Modena and Reggio Emilia formed consortiums and agreed upon rules for production, to assure high quality deserving of the name. The intense brown color; its particular density, acidity, and sweetness; and even its delicate aroma and woody overtones are all monitored for consistency across qualifying brands. The result embodies the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of centuries-old tradition.
The Mark of Authenticity
One way to make sure you’re buying real, authentic balsamic vinegar is simply to look for the blue and yellow Protected Geographical Indication stamp on the bottle. This PGI status (or IGP in Italian) is granted by the European Union, and ensures the bottle you’re buying is the certified Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, made following specific guidelines.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI balances the sweetness of cooked grape must with the freshness and acidity of wine vinegar. The grapes must be from only Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana, and Montuni vines, varieties common in the region. The cooked and concentrated must is then combined with at least 10 percent wine vinegar, along with vinegar aged at least 10 years, to obtain a particular flavor profile that satisfies the requirements of the label, yet still may distinguish the particular maker.
The vinegar then matures on precious woods, such as oak, chestnut, mulberry, and juniper, for at least 60 days, before being tested and certified by expert tasters. To be labeled “Aged,” the balsamic must spend three or more years in wood barrels or casks, developing greater complexity and more woody notes.
Put It on the Menu
In the kitchen, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is incredibly versatile. It’s lovely in a simple vinaigrette for salads, but also stands up to stronger flavored dishes, adding depth to meat, fish, pastas, or even pizza.
Drizzle a thick, aged variety directly over fresh fruits and desserts, or add a few drops to a cocktail for an interesting twist. A bit of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena with Parmigiano-Reggiano—another of Emilia-Romagna’s great culinary legacies—is a magnificent, time-tested pairing.
For more ideas, try these sweet and savory recipes:
Coconut White Chocolates With Balsamic Hearts
Makes about 24 chocolates
- 150g heavy cream
- 1/2 vanilla pod
- 200g white chocolate
- 20g butter
- 250g grated coconut, divided
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI
Heat up the cream with the seeds from the vanilla pod.
Chop the white chocolate into small slivers, add them to the cream with the butter, and stir to obtain an even mixture.
Add 200g of grated coconut, stir well, and allow to cool.
Fill chocolate molds with the mixture. Make a hole in the center of each one and fill it with Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI, then top with some extra chocolate mixture.
Put the chocolates in the refrigerator for a few hours.
Remove the chocolates from the molds and cover them with the remaining grated coconut.
Note: To fill the chocolates with Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI more easily, freeze some drops of vinegar on a piece of parchment paper, put in the chocolate while still frozen, and then top with the chocolate mixture. Put in the refrigerator to rest.
Couscous Salad With Pomegranate, Walnuts, and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
- 200g couscous
- 100g carrots, peeled and diced
- 100g zucchini, trimmed and diced
- 50g celery, diced
- 100g pomegranate arils
- 1 small red apple, diced
- 1 heart of romaine, cut into strips
- 60g shelled walnuts, chopped
- Italian extra virgin olive oil
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI
Prepare the couscous according to the instructions on the package. Fluff it up with a fork and dress it with a drizzle of oil and a pinch of salt.
Combine the carrots, zucchini, celery, pomegranate, and apple in a bowl.
Emulsify 4 tablespoons of oil with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI. Dress the vegetables with the emulsion and let sit for 5 minutes.
Add the couscous, lettuce, and chopped walnuts. Mix well and leave to rest for another 5 to 10 minutes before eating.
Balsamic-Glazed Salmon With Chopped Pistachios
- 1 big bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 sprigs dill, chopped, plus more for the side
- 120g chopped pistachios
- 600g salmon fillet
- Salt and pepper
- Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI
- New potatoes, peeled and boiled
Mix together the parsley, dill, and chopped pistachios and set aside.
Using tweezers, remove any bones from the salmon. Season the salmon lightly with salt and pepper and sear in a non-stick pan for 3 to 4 minutes each side. Brush both sides with the Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
Top the salmon with the chopped pistachio mixture, then slice in pieces about 1/2-inch thick.
Serve with a side dish of new potatoes boiled and dressed with abundant chopped dill, oil, and salt.
Recipes courtesy of Licia Cagnoni
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