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Balsamico can cost as much as century-old cognac

| Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

Distillers of spirituous liquors have long referred to the reduction in volume, through evaporation, of their maturing beverages as "the angels' share."

Years spent in the barrel improve and concentrate flavor, but diminishing quantity clearly is an offsetting economic loss. Bottling, of course, cuts short the angels' take.

But Balsamico can barrel-age for 50 years or more. That should give angels much cause to smile.

What is Balsamico•

A traditional product of Modena, Italy, this precious elixir, drop for drop, can cost as much as century-old cognac or whiskey. Like wine, it starts out as grapes. But in the vinegar-making process, the grape "must," including skins and juice, are boiled for many hours rather than being crushed and fermented as they would be for wine.

Two indigenous grape varieties most used are Lambrusco (red) and Trebbiano (white). The absence of fermentation distinguishes Balsamico from "wine vinegars," which commence as wine and are then developed into vinegars.

The initial boiling in the Balsamico process reduces the must liquid by half. At this stage, it is called Saba -- a desirable sweetener and condiment in its own right. Saba destined to become Balsamico proceeds to the next step: placement in large vats where bacteria transform it into agro di mosto.

This mildly sweet and sour liquid then moves to aged barrels -- many having been in use for a century or more, adding flavor from previous productions. Over time, when barrels develop leaks, they are encased in new ones -- protecting against waste while retaining the taste contributions of time.

For aging, the "Batteria" arranges rows of barrels in descending size and various woods -- oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, ash and juniper. The barrels rest in areas, such as the attic level of a building, where they are exposed to the extreme temperatures of summer and winter. Experienced blenders exploit the differences in flavor from the woods, as well as the relative percentages of Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes that make up the original must. The precise formulas for each acetaia, or vinegar producing facility, is held as a secret and passed down for generations.

After placement in the largest barrels, Balsamico's "life of diminishing returns" continues. In storage areas, producers patiently monitor the vinegar's development, its gain in flavor and concentration as the angels take their share. Ever slowly reducing, the liquid moves to smaller barrels. The contents of the smaller barrels are topped up from the next largest barrel, and the empty space in the largest one is constantly topped up with agro di mosto.

No true Balsamico is ready for sale until it achieves a minimum maturation of 12 years. By this time, the 100 milliliters of the bottle that holds it will be all that's left of 50 liters of must.

The process is deceptively simple, but rigorously regulated. A powerful consortium controls designation of Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Notice there's no vinegar in the name.). It sets the rules, monitors production and actually handles the bottling in trademark bottles of specific size and distinctive shape. This control, and the resulting seal of D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origin Controllata) or the EU's D.O.P. (protected designation of origin) ensures authenticity. A separate consortium performs the same function for the Balsamico of neighboring Reggio Emilia.

Many inferior products swamp the market, and there is swift trade in misleading and deceptive labeling -- Aceto Vinegar of Modena, for example, is not the real thing. To avoid disappointment, look for the seal of the Balsamico consortium and the unique size and shape of the bottle. If considering a producer who is not a member of the consortium -- and there are some fine independent producers -- get a local reference, visit the acetaia and sample the vinegars.

In supermarkets, don't expect to find anything approximating the taste of true Balsamico. Generally, shelves hold a commercial grade, industrially produced vinegar, thickened by chemicals or cornstarch and colored by caramel.

Balsamico comes in different ages -- from 12 to 50 or more years. The cost ascends with maturity. Young bottles make excellent salad dressings, but fine old ones -- 25 years plus -- are rich, lively brown syrups better used as a condiment with quality cheeses, such as parmesan, fruits or even desserts. Given the cost, dispense with the glass dropper that comes with the bottle, or use an eye-dropper.

Balsamico's complexity of flavor and density transform the most ordinary of foods into something amazing. Use it to swirl into cocktails, caramelize roasted vegetables, perfume berries, glaze meats and fish or drizzle into custards. It goes as well with scrambled eggs as with dark chocolate.

Modena itself is widely considered one of the most interesting and attractive cities in Emilia-Romagna. Situated in Northern Italy, in the Po Valley, this aristocratic enclave was the birthplace -- and burial site -- of Luciano Pavarotti, as well as the birthplace of Enzo Ferrari. In fact, Modena claims title to the world's supercar capitol, because Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maseratti, Bugati and other iconic Italian sports car factories are or were located here.

Community life bustles in the splendid Piazza Grande, flanked by a beautiful Romanesque Cathedral, with its famous gothic tower, the Torre della Ghirlandina. Museums flourish, and stylish shops reflect a modern prosperity to match the city's glorious past. Bars and trattorias deliver delicious ambience along with a glass of sparkling, refreshing Lambrusco, slightly effervescent Trebbiano or a fuller-bodied Malvasia -- all locally produced.

In a thriving restaurant scene, two-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana stands out. Here chef-owner Massimo Bottura conceives and cooks with intelligence and creativity, offering a menu that's as exquisite in flavor as it is beautiful on the plate. Frequently associated with avant-garde cooking, Bottura goes way beyond what most kitchen scientists aim for. His style fuses the best of tradition with the tenets of tomorrow's table. He enlists technique and technology, he says, for the service of the premier raw ingredients of his region. The result is a menu bursting with sensual excitement, offering signatures such as: deconstructed pasta e fagiole, with foie gras, in a glass; the flavors of caprese -- tomato, basil and mozzarella -- in ravioli, chased by a shot glass of tomato water with pea-size mozzarella balls in suspension; or his classic deconstructed Caesar salad -- wild greens and herbs, lined up with long croutons, anchovy-spiked aioli and shaved golden egg yolk.

Chef Bottura also produces a line of alluring condiments under the Villa Manodori Label -- Extra Virgin Olive Oil, tradizionale Balsamico, Dark Cherry Balsamico, essential oils of rosemary, garlic, etc.

What's what

While Italians have been producing Balsamico since the Middle Ages, it was not on America's shopping list until the 1980s -- supposedly introduced by Marcella Hazan's cookbooks and cooking classes. What really fueled the craze, though, was the availability of inexpensive and ubiquitous bottles of "Balsamic Vinegar" on supermarket shelves. But those $4.99 bottles are cheap commercial imitations with no relationship to the real thing. If you want a more authentic experience, some things you should know:

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is the authentic product, made in small batches, from grapes grown in the micro-climate of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy. It begins with grape must and follows a unique aging process in aged barrels of different woods, for a minimum of 12 years. No wine is involved. It must be submitted for approval to the official Consortium of the city and bears both D.O.C. and D.O.P. which guarantees its authenticity. Over 25 years, the label specifies extravecchio -- a thick, mahogany-colored syrup, balanced sweet and sour but inclined to the sweet side. Acidity is 6 percent or less. Balsamico should not be used with heat to cook. Tradizionale can be used to dress fruits and salads and to finish various dishes. Extravecchio is best used sparingly -- a few drops -- on chunks of fine Parmesan cheese or prosciutto for appetizers, for desserts or sipped after the meal.

Some independents bypass the expense and rigorous logistics of the Consortium but still produce outstanding Balsamico. In Italy, get local recommendations and sample before you buy. Here, find a trusted purveyor who has done the legwork for you.

Commercial-grade balsamic vinegar is essentially wine vinegar, produced on an industrial scale, with no or little aging. It begins with wine turned into vinegar, which then is thickened with guar gum or cornstarch and colored with caramel. Acidity is over 6 percent. Quality varies. It can be used for salad dressings, marinades, reductions and sauces. Some restaurant kitchens routinely boil this vinegar until it concentrates and thickens, a pretender on menus.

Many condiment-grade balsamic vinegars actually mix the real traditional Balsamico with wine vinegars in various proportions. Some of these provide good value. Villa Manodori offers a condiment line.

Celestial Salad

2 large yellow beets

Extra-virgin olive oil

4 cups arugula

1/2 pound chevre

1/2 cup walnuts

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 teaspoons Balsamico

Rub the beets with olive oil and roast until tender on the grill or in the oven. Stem (no need to peel) and cut into bite-size cubes. Chill.

Rinse and dry the arugula leaves. Divide into four and plate.

Portion the chilled beets onto the arugula.

Thinly slice the chevre and place onto the beets.

Portion the walnuts onto the chevre.

Anoint each salad with olive oil to taste. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle on the Balsamico.

Makes 4 servings.

Glamorous Green Beans

Water

1 pound fresh green beans, washed and trimmed

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 tablespoons pecans, coarsely chopped

1/2 pound assorted wild mushrooms, thinly sliced

Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

2 teaspoons Balsamico

In a large nonstick skillet, bring an inch of water to a boil. Add the beans and cook uncovered until crisp, for about 5 minutes. Drain the beans, place on a serving platter and keep warm.

Add the olive oil to the skillet, then the pecans, then the mushrooms. Sautee over medium heat until the mushrooms are tender. Season with salt and pepper. Add the Balsamico, stir, remove from the heat and drizzle the sauce over the beans.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Figs in Heaven

Note: If figs are not available, substitute persimmons, strawberries or other seasonal soft fruit.

1 quart good-quality vanilla ice cream

8 ripe fresh figs, halved and warmed slightly in a low oven

4 teaspoons 25-year or older Balsamico

Scoop ice cream into four dessert bowls. Portion fig halves onto the ice cream. Drizzle on Balsamico.

Makes 4 servings.

Porcini Crusted Delmonico

This recipe comes from Executive Chef Donato Coluccio of Capital Grille, Downtown.

4 22-ounce Delmonico steaks

8 tablespoons olive oil

8 tablespoons porcini rub (Coluccio buys his from Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.)

8 tablespoons Balsamico

4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 ounces micro-sprout, for garnish

Coat the Delmonico steaks with the olive oil and porcini rub. Let rest for 5 minutes.

Sear the steaks in the broiler on each side, for approximately 4 minutes per side for medium-rare.

Place each steak, bone at the 1 o'clock position, in the center of a large round plate. Drizzle on Balsamico.

Dot the Balsamico and extra-virgin olive oil around the plate.

Garnish with micro sprouts and serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Additional Information:

If you go

You certainly can rent a car and drive. But Modena is easy to reach by train from Bologna, the closest city with a wide range of international flight connections. USAirways offers Philadelphia-originating direct flights to Venice and Milan, where local bus service reaches the closest rail terminal. Venice's Marco Polo airport is smaller and easier to handle than Milan's Malpensa, and the combined bus-train journey to Modena is less than 2 1/2 hours. The Modena station is a brisk 10 minute walk or short taxi ride to the city center.

Osteria Francescana is five minutes on foot from here. Balsamico producers, generally family-owned for generations, locate in the countryside, reachable by taxi, with a round trip costing as much as 50 Euros. Since the process is quite straightforward, visiting one should be enough. Schedule a guided tour with Acetaia Malpighi -- or request information from the Consorzio .

Do plan to buy when you visit, because direct sale prices are about 40 percent to 50 percent of the cost at Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table and other U.S. gourmet-food retailers.

Additional Information:

Where to buy

On the Internet, Google the product you want to find importers in all price ranges -- from $40 to $400. But Pittsburgh shops offer good variety and value.

• John McGinnis, in the South Hills, regularly carries a large assortment, adds bottles for the holidays and will special order. His best-seller: Villa Manodori, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, Extrovecchio ($134.95).

• Shadyside Market also boosts stock for the holidays but regularly sells a popular 25-year DeNigris ($60) and L'Eccelenza di Balsamico ($99).

• Having visited Italian producers for 11 years, Rick Sunseri, Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., is a true aficionado. Here is where to go for both education and sampling from his cherished bottles. He carries top Reggio Emilia brands, ranging in price from $95 to $179. But he also has some prized finds from lesser-known labels and independents in the $30 to $40 range. As a point of envy, he possesses personal bottles, given to his father, in Italy, as 100-year-old Balsamicos in 1972. Each year, he says, to honor his father's birthday, he puts a drop or two on a piece of Parmesan cheese and San Daniele prosciutto. It tastes like candy, he says.

Additional Information:

Quick uses for Balsimco

• Mix extra-virgin olive oil and 12-year-old Balsamico, for dipping rustic bread.

• Brush a portobello mushroom with extra-virgin olive oil, grill and drizzle on a few drops of Balsamico.

• Boil red potatoes, sprinkle with truffle salt and anoint with Balsamico.

• Roast carrots and parsnips, garnish with fine olive oil and Balsamico.

• Macerate fresh strawberries in Prosecco, add a few drops Balsamico.

• Grill scallops, then dot with drops of Balsamico before serving.

• Try pumpkin tortellini garnished with butter and Balsamico.

• Roast chicken in red wine with herbs and finish with Balsamico.

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