IT'S CRIMINAL! THE GREAT BALSAMIC VINEGAR SWINDLE.

January 1, 2018

 

 


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What's wrong with this image? It's one typical of supermarkets in South Australia, perhaps Australia, maybe the world over. Where is the crime? Who are the criminals? Where are the victims?

 

None of these bottles contain true balsamic vinegar of Modena, regardless of what the labels say.

 

Perhaps you can hear the anger in my voice. Yes, I am angry and have been for years. But I have a sanguine nature. I would do anything in the world to avoid distress and confrontation.  I do what I can through teaching, trying to set the world aright in a calm, measured way.

 

I believe that instruction is the only way to change practices. We need to educate people about produce and products and how to use them in a genuine way. And for the past 35 years or so, through my teaching and media work, I have chipped away at false observances, called out ‘inauthentic’ products, given people information that I think, entitled and vain as I am, will enrich their lives. But enough is enough.

 

What has tipped me over the edge? What has turned me into a wild haired harridan, rending my blouse and turning my complexion purple?

 

Two things.

 

Firstly, against my better instincts, I was trawling the Internet looking for a dressing I knew must exist – I was thinking savoury, luscious and herbaceous to dress some poached stone fruits to accompany the last of the Christmas Lamb Ham *see post: Joyful and Triumphant. Dec. 7, 2017.

 

I came upon travesty after mockery of dressings with 'balsamic'  vinegar. One post purported to know how to “make your own balsamic” involving maple syrup and reduced wine. (I am tempted to use an exclamation mark.)

 

Secondly, this Internet crawl cast my memory back to Lecce in Italy this last October. Everywhere we dined, out came the cruet with good quality olive oil (we were in Puglia, after all). But always there was 'balsamic' vinegar in place of a local, good quality white or red wine vinegar. Why? 

 

The Italian Government broadly, but more particularly, the Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, is culpable. Those men, and until recently, most were men, get about self importantly, ribbons and medals garlanded about their necks. They have dropped the ball; they have blood on their hands. Soon, they will be pleading with UNESCO to register true Balsamic Vinegar on the UNESCO’S Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. *See post ​: How to Fall in Love with Naples Step #4. Dec 15th '17.  And yet, the blame for the violation of this product falls squarely upon their own shoulders.

 

The term "aceto balsamico" is unprotected. So, there is a huge trade in mass produced imitations. They are made of wine vinegar with the addition of colouring, sugar and thickeners to give the viscosity of the genuine product. The European Commission insists on ageing this rubbish for two months but not necessarily in wooden barrels. In this category, so-called, 'aged balsamic vinegar' must be aged for at least three years. Why would you bother?

 

As a proud consumer of true balsamic vinegar, I can tell you that you should expect to pay a small fortune for a tiny bottle. Don’t hesitate, it’s worth every euro. And the long, skilled process merits the price tag. 

 

Proud as punch to be broaching my bottle of 25 year old Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena Extra Vecchio. Sharing with my long time friend, travel companion and colleague, Carmen Vining, cost is no issue. (Actually, I think it was Carmen's bottle, so no issue at all.)

 

 

Let's put true balsamic vinegar in its geographical, historical and culinary context. On your next trip to Italy, go north to Modena in Emilia Romagna. Allow yourself some time to explore both regions yoked together post unification of Italy.  Emilia Romagna is a region that boasts excellent wine and food - Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto, mortadella, zampone, egg pasta, fabulous chocolates.

 

At Maranello, Ferrari has its factory and showrooms, but there are also Lamborghini and Maserati. Gorgeous towns abound - Bologna for food, opera, art and, since 1088, the oldest University in Europe; UNESCO designated Ferrara for its moated Castello Estense and graceful city boulevards; Ravenna for its glorious mosaics; Parma for its prosciutto; and Rimini on the coast because it's beautiful.

 

Parmigiano Reggiano - taste it in its home region. You'll never make do with an inferior product again. It is the same story with balsamic vinegar.

 Photo credit for Modena unless otherwise stated: Stephen English, "Northern Exposure Tour", October 2014.

After the parmesan wheels are removed from their giant bathtubs of salty water, they are kept in  the maturation warehouse, magazzino stagionatura,  to mature. A representative from D.O.P. visits after 12 months to inspect and approve each cheese. If a wheel doesn’t measure up - a failed wheel usually has surface cracks – then the representative will scrape off the markings on the rind so the cheese cannot be passed off as parmigiano reggiano. The wheels can be sold at this point, but the better cheeses are at least 24 months old or more, when as 'stravecchio' they develop complexity and a spicier 'nose'.  

 

 

How ever small the sliver of cheese you buy, authentic Reggiano will have the name pinned all over the crust. This cheese today is identical to how it was eight centuries ago, having "the same appearance and the same extraordinary fragrance, made in the same way, in the same places, with the same expert ritual gestures" (Official site of Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano).

D.O.C. laws require Parmigiano-Reggiano to be made according to a specific recipe and production methods only within the provinces of Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena, and specific regions in the provinces of Bologna and Mantua.

 

Experts test each huge wheel with a little hammer. The sound it makes reveals all kind of information about its condition. Just as a GP uses a stethoscope, so a master cheese maker can tell the quality of a cheese by listening to the sounds that reverberate after he taps it with his tools. 

 

 

Ferrari, at Maranello, for the petrol heads. You may like to 'drive' the car around a simulated track at ridiculous speeds.  I found the canteen.

 

 

 

Prosciutto heaven. 

 

Modena, itself, is a civilised, elegant, food conscious town that gave us Luciano Pavarotti. Save your pennies and lunch or dine at Osteria Francescana: it is not expensive by Australian standards and the experience is fantastic. Or you can eat at its much more casual sister, Franceschetta 58 where Marta Pulini oversaw the splendid food when we ate there. She is a marvellous chef, worth pursuing in Milan. Eat lunch at the Hosteria Giusti. Ring ahead to reserve your spot at one of only four tables. Enter through a narrow corridor in the delicatessen  and you'll be treated to very stylish Modenese food that will make you fall in love with the north all over again. 

 

Otherwise, buy panini and mortadella at the covered market, Mercato Albinelli, or have a sangiovese and gnocchi fritti at a chic restaurant under one of the many colonnaded terraces. For the afternoon merende in Modena, nothing beats star anise liqueur, Sassolino with famous honey brittle, or what became my favourite, Torta Bensone dipped into Lambrusco. 

 

Photo credits: Stephen English for "Northern Exposure Tour", 2014.

 

Generally, I plan one flashy, expensive restaurant when I travel with groups, preferring to eat at local trattorie and small restaurants. In Emilia Romagna we made a number of exceptions. It just had to be done - we were in the epicentre of northern Italian cuisine. 

 

 

 

Oh, come on. Indulge me. He's my Mick Jagger, my Maria Callas, my Pablo Picasso.

 

 

Massimo Bottura: "Memories of a Mortadella Sandwich". Genius. 

 

 

Pranzo all' Hosteria Giusti. You will think you are one of the chosen few - and you are.  Don't be late, lunch service is strictly 90 minutes. Here's the place to have Bollito Misto with all the trimmings including the savoury fruit jam, Savor, or try zampone al lambrusco.

 

Whatever you do in Modena, book a tour at one of the private houses where real balsamic vinegar is still made in the farmhouse attic, l'acetaia, lovingly curated by the family following the time honoured method, some bottles for up to 25 years.  It is a humbling experience to see at first hand the sacrifices that the family makes to bring us the genuine article.  But the pride and satisfaction is palpable as their guests finally understand, appreciate and enjoy their labours. 

 

To begin, ordinary vinegar has its origins in wine, white or red, which is then allowed to ferment. Balsamic vinegar, by contrast, is produced from the juice. Three kinds of vinegars, based on the particular area and ageing  period, are marketed: "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena), "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia" (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of the Emilia Region), and "Aceto Balsamico di Modena" (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena). The two traditional balsamic vinegars are made the same way from reduced grape mosto, aged for no less than 12 years in a series of wooden barrels, and are produced exclusively in either the province of Modena or the wider Emilia region surrounding it. The usually less expensive Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico di Modena) is made from grape must blended with wine vinegar, and produced exclusively in either Modena or Reggio Emilia. How can a mere mortal fathom all of this at the supermarket?

 

To further complicate matters, Reggio Emilia designates the different ages of their balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia) by label colour. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years, a silver label that the vinegar has aged for at least 18 years, and a gold label designates that the vinegar has aged for 25 years or more. Modena uses a different system to indicate the age of its balsamic vinegars (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena). A white-coloured cap means the vinegar has aged for at least 12 years and a gold cap bearing the designation extravecchio (extra-old) shows the vinegar has aged for 25 years or more.

 

 

On the left is my 12 year old bottle, almost empty. The other is 25 years old, extravecchio. It is as thick as molasses, unctuous, heady, savoury not sweet. . True balsamic vinegar is rich, glossy, deep brown in colour, and has a complex flavour that balances the natural sweet and sour elements of the cooked grape juice with hints of wood from the casks.

I want my bottle to last until I can go back to Modena to buy more directly from the maestro, so I use it sparingly.

Balsamic glaze? This. Is. It.

 

And now you have a glimpse of why I am angry at the Italians. How dare they foist inferior, doctored vinegar upon us, allowing us to believe we have the ‘real thing’? How dare they allow labelling that is so confusing and misleading? What we buy in the supermarket for $4.99 or less, is not, can't possibly be, balsamic vinegar of Modena. And yet, there it is on the label. 

 

It is necessary for us to explore exactly what is balsamic vinegar and how it is made, to truly appreciate why it is unique and why the debasement of it offends me so much.

 

To begin, let’s adopt the Italian practice of calling it a ‘condimento’, a condiment. I think this subtly changes our expectations of its use. Then, let’s declare that there is no involvement of balsa wood anywhere in the making. At one time, the precursor of the modern product was not only culinary but was used by the apothecaries as a treatment, a salve, a balsam. Athletes used it externally to ‘bring out’ bruises; taken internally, it eased menstrual cramps, alleviated flatulence and was taken to aid digestion after a heavy northern Italian meal. I can attest, it is a wonderful digestivo.

 

We visited the house and attic of the charming Signor Agapito Cocchi who has been a Maestro Assaggiatore, a Master Taster, for the Consortium for many years. Waiting in the wings to take over the family business is his daughter, a delightful and knowledgeable business woman. She has a row of barrels in her name, as does her own little girl. The tradition lives on and is in good hands.

 

 

Local vineyards in the area grow Trebbiano di Spagna grapes for the vinegar. (A small percentage of Lambrusco is allowed.)  After the grapes are harvested in the middle of the cool Emilian autumn, they are crushed to form ‘must’, a juice, which is filtered and cooked by slow boiling  in an open vat over a fire until it reaches the right consistency. The  mosto cotto, the ‘cooked must’, is filtered again and once it has cooled, poured into the barrels in the attic and left to mature and develop. Microbiotic and enzymatic activity then do their work to create the condiment.

 

Photo credit: istock

Trebbiano di Spagna grapes. This Spanish variety of trebbiano was introduced in the 16th C in the countryside around Modena and soon took over from the original variety. Custom demands that the vintage is as late as possible and the grapes are harvested with a high Baume.

 

Photo credit: Stephen English, "Northern Exposure Tour" 2014.

 

Pressed Trebbiano grapes. True balsamic vinegar is made from a 'boiled down' reduction of the pressed grapes to become 'mosto cotto', cooked must, approximately 30% of the original volume.  At the very first sign of fermentation, the must is removed from the vats before the sugar is transformed into alcohol.

This is the  beginning of the balsamic vinegar story. Then the dance of transfer and topping up - travasi e rincalzo - begins.

 

As dictated by tradition, the vinegar - at this stage, just boiled juice - is matured in the attic of the farmhouse so that it is subjected to the high heat of summer which concentrates and matures it. Each year, it is transferred from one barrel set to the next. The casks are made of different woods - chestnut, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash and often juniper -  the ever decreasing volume of liquid spends time on each wood. For the next twelve, and up to twenty five years, the precious, dark liquid will progress from the sixty litre oak barrel set to the twenty litre mulberry one.  

 

Photo credit: handbook of the Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. 

 

Each spring, usually around May, but sometimes the timeline is extended, the liquid progresses from one cask to the other. The technique of topping up the cask set with new cooked must relies on the judgement and skills of each family. It is an operation that brings into play all the skills learned by one generation and passed on to the next. This, in essence, is the craft - knowing how much, at what concentration and when, to add the mosto to the barrel set - that renders real balsamic vinegar

 

Signor Agapito Cocchi had the group spell bound with his knowledge and his craft. What an honour to be in his family's 'acetaia'.

 

 

L'Acetaia.

Photo credit: publicity for Azienda Agricola Agapito Cocchi

Via Medicine, 34. San Vito di Spilamberto, Modena.

 

An illustration shows the process of decanting and topping up but gives no clue as to the intuition and knowledge behind the method. 

 

Photo credit: handbook of the Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. 

 

To summarise the qualities of true balsamic vinegar, I refer to the "Integral text from the definition of balsamic vinegar given to MAESTRI ASSAGGIATORI, March, 1976".

 

As we have come to expect, the definitions are floral and poetic rather than prescriptive:

 

Photo credit: handbook of the Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. 

 

How to use it.

In Emilia-Romagna, balsamic vinegar is most often served in drops on top of chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano as an antipasto.  A few drops on freshly sliced mortadella with pistacchio or peppercorn lifts this simple antipasto to another level.

 

It is also used sparingly to enhance steaks, eggs, or grilled fish, as well as on fresh fruit such as strawberries, pitted cherries, white nectarines or white peaches and pears and on plain crema  gelato. Recently, I cooked calf liver with sultanas. I anointed each slice with exactly three drops of my 12 year old vinegar as I served the plates to the table.

 

As a salad dressing, I disapprove of its use on lettuce leaves. For me, it does not enhance the leaves, slides off and the distinct sweet-sour flavour does nothing for the lettuce. It is great on tomatoes, braised fennel, roasted vegetables, simple risotto, scallops. If you want to use it in cooking, as opposed to a condiment, may I suggest that you add it to the dish at the end of cooking. That way, you will retain its penetrating perfume and well-balanced acidity.

 

Balsamic vinegar may be drunk from a tiny glass to conclude a meal and aid digestion. When I become Minister for Health, I will have it listed on the PBS.

 

Such care, such time, such skill cannot be bought at the local supermarket for $4.99 per 375 ml bottle.  Do you see why I am angry?

 

 

There, I have vented.

 

Pass the balsamic vinegar.  All this angst has given me heartburn.

I need a digestivo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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