Thursday, April 19, 2012

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale

A few weeks ago a friend asked to store some things in my garage while she moved.  Moving got a bit of a wrinkle in it so her things have been there somewhat longer than anticipated but she has been organizing (I needed my lawn mower and garden tools to be accessible) and getting things sorted out after her helpers just kind of stuffed it in any which way.  In doing that she's unearthed several boxes of food and gave them to me.  In many cases much more than I will ever use, so I'm going to be looking to re-gift many items.

This morning, since it's too cold and rainy for me to want to be out in the garden so far, I've been looking through a collection of fancy oils, vinegars and other seasonings. With labels lacking storage instructions for after the bottle was opened, and because my mom put opened vinegar bottles in the fridge, I always had done that too.  But you don't need to... I learned a cool dark cupboard is ideal.  And even a bit of exposure to heat and light isn't going to destroy the quality of the vinegar.

I found the historic lore of balsamic vinegar, or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, on the website of The Napolean Co. quite interesting.

Vinegar is one of the oldest fermented products known to man.  The word vinegar comes from the French words for wine, “vin”, and “aigre”, meaning sour, which in turn came from the Latin “vinum acer”.  Vinegar in Italy is named “aceto” for the aerobic bacteria that produces vinegar rather for the wine from which it is made.  The Babylonians were making vinegar as early as 5000 B.C.  Hippocrates recommended vinegar for its medicinal benefits as early as the 5th Century, B.C.  “Balsamico” derives its name from the word “balm” (rooted in the Latin balsalum), which refers to an aromatic odor/resin, a healing or soothing medicine or aromatic, a medicinal substance possessing a spicy fragrance as well as stimulant qualities.  (It has nothing to do with balsa wood).  It is also reported to have been used as an aphrodisiac, a gargle, and tonic, in addition to its use as an air purifier against the Black Plague.  Written records mentioning special vinegars made in the town of Modena (a historic town west of Bologna) and long aging in wood barrels date to the 11th century.  It appears, however, that the first Balsamic was preserved/barreled by the Este Family in the Hodgna region around 1300.  The earliest written recordings of Balsamic date back to 1747, where it is mentioned in the vintage books and sale records of the Este Family.  By the 19th century, heads of state knew Archduke Francesco Tu for his “aceto del duca”, which he gave as a symbol of friendship.
If you decide to give balsamic as a gift, you’re in royal company - Count Boniface of Modena presented a barrel as a gift to Emperor Henry III of the Holy Roman Empire.   In those days, balsamic was consumed primarily as a drink or a digestif…it was kept in the family, passed from generation to generation, as it aged.  New barrels were started at birth, and given away at weddings.
 A little farther into their webpage, there are a number of ways to use balsamic vinegar beyond the expected oil and vinegar salad dressings.  Thinking on which to try first:

  • to give flavor depth to soups and stews
  • drizzled over meats and vegetables
  • splash over fresh berries
  • pour over Brie
  • as a marinade for chicken or duck
  • drizzled over vanilla ice cream
  • blended into pasta

I first started using balsamic vinegar 7-8 years ago after visiting Portland OR for work and having a tomato salad at the Portland Chop House (seemingly now closed) at Embassy Suites.  It was simply sliced heirloom tomatoes with a bit of freshly cracked black pepper and parmesan shavings drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction.   And it was so wonderful that I started trying to recreate it with my own garden tomatoes.  Even after all these years, I've not quite got the reduction perfected but the experiments have been so very enjoyable!

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