Aceto balsamico is one of the most widely used ingredients from the region of Reggio Emilia. It tastes sweet and tart. It goes well with the cheese most identified with Italy, namely the wonderfully grainy Parmigiano Reggiano.
Balsamic vinegar is created by simmering the freshly pressed juices and skins of locally grown grapes such as Trebbiano, Sangiovese and Lambrusco. The natural sugars in the grapes darken and thicken after undergoing an initial cooking process, thus becoming slightly caramelized. The liquid obtained slowly ferments, and is mellowed in casks made of the wood of chestnut, oak and cherry trees. For a period of years this darkish brown juice is moved from one wooden barrel to another.
Most experts agree that a minimum of three years is necessary to create that which is recognized as balsamic vinegar. The traditional vinegars of Modena and Reggio Emilia may be aged up to 25 years. They are reverently called a nectar, or at the very least a seasoning or condiment. An aged balsamic is treated like a perfume from heaven.
For the following cupboard essential I recommend the use of a young product aged three years and manufactured with organically grown grapes from the region of Reggio Emilia. While making a syrup of balsamic vinegar might sound complicated, I promise it isn’t. I use the green labelled organic balsamic from Monari Federazioni for the following recipe. Traditional balsamic vinegars aged longer than three years should be used in the kitchen without further reduction into a syrup to my mind.
- 500 grams of balsamic vinegar of Modena, preferably organic
- 50 grams of raw cane sugar, agave syrup or honey
- 3 fresh bay leaves
Simply stir the raw cane sugar and the balsamic vinegar in a sauce pan, simmering at a low flame just under boiling point about fifteen to twenty minutes, or until the vinegar is reduced by half. The liquid will thicken and turn into a dark, glossy sweet and sour syrup. Watch it carefully in the last few minutes of the cooking process, as the syrup can burn easily.
Cool the homemade syrup slightly. Pour it into a glass jar while still warm, adding the bay leaves. Save the result of your efforts in the refrigerator for up to three months.
♦ Suggested combinations
Sprinkle the freshest salad you can find with a bit of sea salt, drizzle some balsamic syrup, followed by your best olive oil, and stir the three ingredients through the leaves.
Balsamic syrup goes well with grilled red peppers. Sauté wedges of red onions until they are brown and sweet and top them while warm with balsamic syrup.
Steam green beans and dress them with olive oil, balsamic syrup and sea salt as the perfect warm addition to a meal of grilled meat or fish.
The history of the making of balsamic vinegar is interesting and full of culture. The cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia each have their own association, called a “Consorzio”. If you would like to learn more about balsamic history, I recommend looking up the following groups:
- Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena
- Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia
Both associations provide their information in English as well as Italian.