Sunday, December 11, 2011

A is for Aceto Balsamico

For those of us who wonder why in the world anyone would pay what seems like an outrageous price for some fancy Italian balsamic vinegar when there are plenty of cheaper options available on store shelves, contributor Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood provides an explanation proving, once again, that you get what you pay for.

Among the many amazing things we did during our month in Italy was meeting Laura and Deeana, the two women who operate Profumi Estensi, my balsamic vinegar supplier (and a special thanks Leslie and Manual from Viridian for the connecting us). While we’d emailed for a few years, this was our first face-to-face, and both Judith and I felt it was a high point of the trip.

Not only did we really, really like Laura and Deanna (and their families, who fed us and showed us Modena), but we came away with a much better understanding of the amount of hard work, deep-seated knowledge, and just plain magic that goes into aceto balsamico.

Most of what’s sold as balsamic vinegar is just red wine vinegar sweetened with caramelized sugar and has no relation to the real stuff. But it’s cheap to make and generates nice profit margins for manufacturers willing to capitalize on gullible shoppers.

Real balsamic vinegar begins with the freshly pressed juice of Trebbiano grapes. The juice or must is cooked down to about 30% of its original volume, then it begins the slow fermentation process in a set of barrels made from different woods called a batteria (photos, top and left). Each year, if the vinegar maker thinks it’s good enough, some of the vinegar from the last barrel in the batteria is removed. That barrel is topped up from the next oldest, and the process moves up the line with some of the newly reduced must going into the first barrel. A batteria may only yield a few liters of vinegar every year.

Profumi Estensi works with vinegar makers who produce balsamico on a very small scale, primarily for their family and friends. They’re willing to sell a little to offset their costs, which can reach hundreds of euros every year. We visited one and climbed the steep ladder up into the attic to see the acetaia (ah-che-taya or vinegar works). Hunched under the low ceiling, Judith and I followed Sergio as he flipped back the cloth squares covering the evaporation holes on the tops of the barrels, dipping spoons into the thick balsamico.

Only a handful of people ever get to see a family acetaia, and we felt incredibly privileged. Sergio inherited some of his barrels from his father, and he grew up learning how to mix vinegar from the different barrels in the batteria to get the complex flavor of true aceto balsamico. Watching him move among the barrels and seeing his eyes light up as he talked about the vinegar, we both wondered how he could bear to part with a single drop.

Roasted Zucca with Balsamico

Laura and Deeana served us this in Modena. The simple squash highlights the balsamico, and the vinegar transforms the humble vegetable. Use one of the larger, pumpkin-like winter squash; they’re a bit dryer than butternut, delicata, or acorn.

Cut the squash into slices about one inch thick; leave the peel attached. Arrange on a sheet pan that’s been drizzled with a bit of extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with a bit of flor de sal, and roast at 350° for about 30 minutes or until the squash is tender.

Let each diner dribble a few drops of balsamic on their plate. Gently daub each bite of squash in the vinegar and eat. Or if you’re feeling flush, drizzle each slice with balsamic before serving.

All photos by Jim Dixon from his travelogue, Italia Redux.

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