We drizzle it over chunks of Parmesan, it gives fresh strawberries a brighter flavour, and where would our summer tomatoes be without the sweet aroma of balsamic vinegar?
Balsamic dates back before the Roman times, yet in North America we know little of the delicious liquid many call black gold. There are distinctly different levels to balsamic vinegar, just as there are for champagne and sparkling wine.
The authentic, protected balsamic is called “aceto balsamico tradizionale”. Like wine, the ageing of balsamic varies. Regulations state that the minimum age is 12 years, but some balsamic is over 100 years old. In Italy, balsamic over a quarter century old is considered to be as close to perfection as one can get. Like sherry, it is aged in the Solera method creating a velvety rich and harmonious texture, a perfect sweet and sour balance, a sensuous aroma (or perfume as the Italians call it), and a luxurious caress on the palate.
Aceto balsamico tradizionale is as highly regarded as truffles, foie gras or icewine. You only need a small teaspoon to add refinement to cooked vegetables, meat or fish, or to polish sauces and marinades. If you’re sipping it on its own as an after dinner drink, half a shot glass is in order. Because less than 3,000 gallons of genuine balsamic is released each year it is considered disgraceful to cook with it. Use it like a fine aged whisky, untouched by heat.
For cooking, Georgette Theodore, owner of Olivo Fresco in Oakville, recommends the other balsamic vinegars, called ‘Condimentos’. “It’s a real education to explain the difference to people,” says Georgette describing two products sharing the same name. While condimentos are aged, they may not be aged in the expensive Solera method. They are often sold in bulk and infused with a variety of delicious flavours. Olivo Fresco’s Balsamic Condimento is from Modena, Italy and is produced in the traditional style It is aged using the Solera system for up to 18 years in chestnut, oak, mulberry and ash barrels.
“If you think you’ve been scoring a deal with cheap balsamic at the grocery store, think again” she warns. Upon closer inspection you might find it’s an imitation balsamic, which is basically cheap wine vinegar with colour, flavour, sweeteners and emulsifiers added. The key is to look at the ingredients list for the words “grape must”, “aged grape must,” or “Mosto d’Uva.”
The Olive Oil Dispensary on Lakeshore Road in Burlington carries over 24 different balsamic vinegars – in bottles or in bulk, and flavoured or traditional. If you’re new to balsamic, they recommend you come in, try them and talk about the different ways to use them from drizzling over ice cream to having your own balsamic tasting party.
In Niagara (two locations, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls), Della Terra Fresh Olive Oil & Balsamic Tasting Bar stocks 21 different balsamic vinegars. Co-owner Regina Paczkowski agrees with Georgette when it comes to fraud and both spend time talking to their customers to explain the differences. Della Terra love to play with balsamic and they have a lot of recipes on their website and I especially love the Flourless Tangerine Balsamic and Blood Orange Brownie – oh yum!
To start your balsamic journey, visit any of these specialty shops to taste and become familiar with its rich, sweet, savoury, lightly acidic nature. Balsamic should always be the last ingredient added to any recipe and always when the food is removed from the heat, preferably just before serving. The exception of course is with salads, where the order should always be salt, balsamic and oil.
81 Florence Drive, Oakville
The Olive Oil Dispensary
2003 Lakeshore Rd, Burlington
211 Martindale Road, St Catharines
4725 Dorchester Road, Niagara Falls
By Lynn Orgyzlo
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to Look Local Magazine. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.