Louis Tortarella poured the balsamic vinegar, drop by drop, syrupy, dark and pungent, over a scoop of ice cream. We took small spoons and tasted. There was the tart flavour of young plums, of old brandy and sweet grapes. Joyce, the Italian food expert, sighed. Pascuali, at the other side of the table, reached for another taste. Louis put the vinegar away. At $125 for 50 milliliters, it was as expensive as good perfume. The bottle it came in was about the same size. This was vinegar that would never see a side of salad. Louis saves it for ice cream, or lemon granita, or fresh strawberries; or maybe, if it is very old, say 50 years, sipped, by itself, as an aperitif.
This was Aceto Balsamico, tradizionale di Modena. It was made from Trebbiano grapes and aged in a series of barrelsfirst oak, then chestnut, cherrywood, ash and finally mulberryfor a dozen years as it slowly reduced and thickened.
Most balsamic vinegar seems to be from Modena, in north central Italy. Only a few decades ago, it was the reward of the harvest, made by local vinegar makers and kept at home. Now large producers buy wine vinegar from anywhere, ship it into town, boil it down and slap on a label that says it comes from Modena.
Different manufacturers have different standards. Bellei, which is available in many stores, makes an interesting cross-section. There is a difference in taste and price between their youngest commercial grade which is aged about two years and their black labeled brand which they claim is aged eight years. At its most minimal, older vinegar is less astringent and has a sweeter aftertaste.
However, it can only hint at the complex balance of sweet and sour that lies in a bottle identified as Tradizionale di Modena. This label is given to officially certified producers and the vinegar must be at least 12 years old. Extra Vecchio (extra old) has to be at least 25 years old. Do not be surprised to see small bottles of this quality selling for several hundred dollars.
A sneaky way to approach the syrupy flavour of aged balsamic vinegar, without paying the price, is to mix a third of a cup of inexpensive brands (such as Belleis or Tre Stelle) with two tablespoons of light brown sugar. Simmer this until it has reduced to a quarter cup of liquid and let it cool. It tastes great on vanilla ice cream.