Balsamic vinegar or Balsamico has been produced for over 600 years but only became popular outside Italy after Luciano Pavarotti sang its praises in the late seventies. Although called a vinegar, and technically it is, it’s nothing like the kind you pickle onions with. Instead, you might use it to dress some strawberries or pour on some organic ice cream.
The method used to produce this dark, syrupy, sweet, slightly acidic vinegar has not changed over hundreds of years. Traditionally, the freshly pressed juice of Trebbiano grapes from the hills near Modena is simmered until reduced by thirty to seventy percent. The concentrated grape 'must' is then fermented by yeast to make alcohol, and then converted to acetic acid.
The fermentation process takes place in a series of wooden casks. Each cask is made from a resinous wood chosen for the qualities it will give the balsamic vinegar; the most common woods being oak, ash, mulberry, cherry, and chestnut. As the balsamic vinegar ages it becomes more concentrated (due to evaporation), consequently the casks decrease in size.
In contrast to wine, the casks are stored in attics rather than cellars where they are exposed to the hot summers and cold winters of the Modena region, activating and blocking fermentation; said to be very important to the taste of the final product.
I was told that it’s an old Italian tradition to start a barrel of balsamic vinegar when a child is born. Then when the child grows up and gets married they bust open the barrel and celebrate.
If you do get your hands on the real thing, like our Godfather Traditional Balsamic, remember you are enjoying something once reserved only for royalty.