Balsamic vinegar

A little alchemy mixed with wine, wood and time makes Balsamic vinegar. Originally made and sold as a medicine in the Middle Ages in the form of a tonic it was used to “heal, soothe and restore”. You can imagine medieval traders shouting out promises of the healing powers of their bottles at markets in Northern Italy. Rather like a port after a heavy meal, a small glass of balsamic was said to aid digestion for ladies or even to assist virility for men! It might not have cured anything but I am sure it tasted better than most other medicines of the day.
Since then trade in balsamic vinegar grew slowly until the 1970’s, that was when it hit our shores and the US. Now we import tons of it every year and despite its vulgar overuse in 80’s and 90’s we have never really tired of it and I doubt we ever will. We scatter it liberally over salads, use it with olive oil for dipping bread, pep up sauces and gravy with it.
Customers in our cookery school always ask us how to choose a good one; our advice is to look carefully at the label:-

  • See where it was made – Balsamic vinegar has its own PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) which means it is made under strict guidelines controlled by the Consorzio Aceto di Modena and has to be produced in either Modena or Reggio, towns in the Emiglia-Romagna region of Northern Italy.
  • Look for a date or label referring to how many years old it is. For the really expensive ones this may be hand-written.
  • An authentic balsamic made in Modena will have a seal attached by the consorzio bearing the code API MO; one made in the Reggio Emilia province will have the code API RE.
  • If you can see the viscosity through the glass by tipping it gently. The more treacly it appears the more years in the barrel.
  • Finally price; a reputable dealer will know its worth and charge accordingly.

Balsamic vinegar

How it is made
Balsamic vinegar is made from cooked must, which is the residual skins and juices left from winemaking. It is usually made from white grapes such as Trebbiano or Spergola but red grapes such as Lambrusco can also be used.  We went to see Alberto Medici from Medici Ermete who makes a world class Lambrusco which is delightful to drink. With the skins leftover from his winemaking he makes traditional balsamic vinegar which is then validated and bottled by his local consorzio.
Alberto showed us his where the vinegar is stored for years.  He refers to the first room he showed us as the nursery where the young balsamic vinegar is started. It is a tradition for a series of barrels to be started when a baby is born. We saw the ones for his children which are now almost ready to use. From a starting point of 200 litres, over 12 years this becomes 2 litres so you can see why it is such an expensive commodity.
Balsamic vinegar
The must is cooked with sugar and a culture of bacteria, which will break down this mixture and alter its flavour, so that it reduces by 50% this is called the “saba”. This is then allowed to become a sort of wine through alcoholic fermentation and the yeast in the barrel and in the acetaia, the natural yeast in the grapes is killed by the cooking.  At this point the barrels are moved out of the nursery and into the “acetaia” upstairs. It is a small room that can never be heated (one of the stipulations from the consorzio). It smells of wine sodden wood. Here the must goes through acetic fermentation as it is aged in a series of barrels made from at least five different woods such as oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, ash and mulberry. The water from the mixture evaporates over the years as the vinegar reduces in volume and each barrel is topped up from the next one, starting with the smallest and working up to the biggest. As the process goes on the consistency thickens. Each barrel imparts a different flavour to the vinegar and you can taste this woodiness on the palette. After twelve years, it can legally be called balsamic vinegar “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” and the age will normally be stated on the bottles.

Balsamic vinegar

It must be over twelve years old, can be thick and viscous and also incredibly expensive! Use this one for dressing food after it is cooked, for example steak or tuna or pouring gingerly over vanilla ice cream or fresh strawberries. It is also classically dripped over hunks of Parmesan cheese. Balsamic vinegar can be up to 120 years old but I have never tried that. Alberto Medici’s 30 year old is the most mature every to hit my lips and it was mind-blowingly good. As he poured some onto a plastic spoon (metal can alter the taste) it was so thick it formed a line between bottle and spoon before slowly transferring itself between one and the other.  At first the taste was sweet as it coats the tongue but that is quickly hit with perfect acidity to balance. I reckoned it cost £5 for every teaspoon but the flavour is so intense actually a few drops were enough.
Balsamic vinegar
There are often good vinegars produced outside the designated region that have to be called Condimento Balsamico, rather than Balsamic Vinegar, and you might also see Salsa Balsamico or other invented titles.  These are not submitted to the Conzorio for inspection. The Italians could win prizes for their rather complicated beaurocracy and while the PDO system keeps their heritage alive and promotes such respect for their traditionally-made produce, it can sometimes seem unfair on those people who produce good quality food outside the specified region of the PDO. We use such a vinegar called Dodi in our school and in the restaurants, it is sweet, savoury and does the job perfectly for an everyday balsamic.
Cheaper balsamic vinegar that does not possess the thick consistency and flavour of an aged one should be used for cooking and can be sweetened and reduced over the heat with an addition of sugar. This is known as a balsamic reduction.
Whatever balsamic you choose make sure you use it according to its value and flavour – something about it being good for you, promises of market traders??.
If you’re in Modena you can visit the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, Corso Cavour 60. Telephone: 059-242298 (www.balsamico.it).
Balsamic vinegar

Our 6 Top Italian Cooking Ingredients

At La Cucina Caldesi we are frequently asked about our products and cooking ingredients, what to choose and where to source them. Stefano Borella, our Head Lecturer and Katie Caldesi have put together a list of FAQS.
Tinned Tomatoes 
For making sauces we recommend tinned plum tomatoes which are produced in Italy; good quality brands such as Cirio and Napolina are our favourites. Always use whole plum tomatoes avoiding the pre-chopped ones as these contain a lot of watery sauce and fewer tomatoes. The Italian best varieties in Italy come from the areas of Campania and Sicily which are famous for the San Marzano and Pachino varieties.  The Italian locals in these areas will tell you that the volcanic soil around the volcanoes of Vesuvius and Etna provide an amazing flavour to their produce.
To see how to make Classic Tomato Sauce watch our video.
Fresh tomatoes are best eaten in the summer months when ripe and full of flavour.  Always leave them out of fridge as this gives them a stronger taste.
For more information on tomatoes read our blog post: Stubborn Green Tomatoes
For how to save tomato seeds read our blog post:  Drying tomato seeds for next year’s crop
 
Extra Virgin Olive Oil and A Nation of Enthusiasts/Fanatics
To say Italians are enthusiastic about their olive oil is an understatement, it is much more than that, they are fanatical about it usually preferring their local variety and preferably made by someone in their family bearing their surname. They will swear to you it is the best in the whole of Italy and insist you try it. Of course it will probably be a single estate variety; that is one made from olives grown on one traceable estate and not blended with other olives. Usually it will be delicious and if offered a bottle you should accept and bring it safely home as if it were a rare and expensive wine.  And just like wine, once you have experienced this gorgeous, unctuous luxury you will be less than enthusiastic about going back to the own brand one on offer in your local supermarket.
To get the most out of this expensive commodity use the single-estate varieties to dress steak, swirl into soup or anoint vegetables. Use a more average olive oil for cooking. We often get asked how to choose a good olive oil and what to do with it, as there are so many conflicting suggestions in the media. Here are our opinions and tips on using olive oil.

  • Generally we use plenty of extra-virgin olive oil as it will make a positive difference to your finished dish. Italians use olive like the French use cream, it makes everything taste better. For a start a generous quantity in the pan will stop onions and garlic burning and give a rich deep flavour to your cooking. So don’t stint on its use, burnt onions will never make a good tomato sauce.
  • When choosing an oil If tasting the oil is not an option price is generally a good guide, £10 a litre is a benchmark.
  • Colour has nothing to do with flavour or quality – green olives make green oil, riper black ones make golden oil. Professional olive oil tasters use blue glasses so that the colour doesn’t distract them.
  • There are lots of good oils from all over the Mediterranean; we are not fixed that it must be Italian! There is a variance in taste and aroma depending on where the olives are grown, soil, weather and variety.   For this region different areas produce different flavours, for example a spicy oil will originate in Sicily, a herby delicate one from Liguria and powerful and grassy from Tuscany.
  • “Extra-Virgin” refers to the purity of the first oil made from cold pressing, this means keeping the temperature below 27c in the production as heat is an enemy of extra virgin olive oil.
  • Always keep oil in a dark cool place and use within 6-8 weeks of opening away from direct sunlight as heat can cause the flavour to change, but not too cold as it will solidify.
  • For centuries Italians have used extra virgin olive oil to cook with, the only exception is deep-frying which is done with seed oil as it holds a higher temperature for longer and has a higher smoke point.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil is just as fattening as any other oil but it is full of polyphenols that are anti-oxidants and are proven to be health beneficial.
  • Use the stronger flavoured oils with care, they can dominate delicate flavoured fish or meat but be perfect to drizzle over pasta or soup.
  • Extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point so we don’t use it for deep fat frying or when very high temperatures are required.

For more information on olive oil and how it is made see our blog post here.
 
Salt
Of all cooking ingredients, Italians use salt generously in their cooking, more generously than we do in the UK but generally they eat less salty snacks and ready-meals than we do so probably our consumption balances out. In summer their climate is much hotter than ours so they may lose more salt through perspiration. Also their diet is based on recipes devised for feeding agricultural workers so their activity meant they could eat more salt. Our take on salt it that it gives a great flavour and won’t harm you if you don’t exceed the recommended limit of 6g per day.  Here are some more facts and tips about salt.

  • There are many different salts, that all have a different texture, character and flavour. In the cookery school we use fine sea salt from Trapani in Sicily for general cooking and coarse sea salt from Maldon, Essex for sprinkling over food such as focaccia.
  • Rock or mineral salt is found inland in salt mines made from fossilized sea beds, while sea salt (also known as bay salt) comes directly from an existing sea and is produced by evaporating sea water.  It is not always pure sodium chloride but these natural additives can give interesting results. Table salt is usually sea salt that has gone through an industrial process to refine it to pure sodium chloride and therefore gives consistent results. For best results look for salt without added anti-caking agents or iodine.
  • You will get a better flavour if you use salt during the cooking process rather than sprinkling it over your food at the end when it doesn’t mix into all the food evenly.
  • We can’t survive without salt although we have only been adding it to our food for the last few thousand years. Before that we obtained what we needed from meat and fish. It is believed that we when we learnt to grow crops and keep animals the proportion of meat and fish fell in our diets and we had to add supplement our diet with salt.
  • Salt is used to preserve food as it staves off bacteria and has the effect of drying out food. For more information on salt as a preservative see our book The Gentle Art Of Preserving published by Kyle Books 2013. Available from our shop (link).
  • As people realised how salt could be used, it was used more frequently and became harder to find.  Its value soared and as it was expensive to produce it became a one of the most important trades in the world giving power to those that had plenty of it.
  • Roman soldiers were paid in salt (in Latin “salarium”) hence the term “salary”.

 
Balsamic Vinegar – The most overused ingredient but also one of the best.
A teaspoon of thick, treacly aged balsamic vinegar is up there with the best – oysters, truffles, vintage champagne and caviar. For a foodie like me I am in heaven watching a drop of 30 year old Balsamic vinegar shyly make its way out of a bottle onto my just cooked steak or my salty, melt-in-the-mouth pork ribs. It would also be perfectly suited to a vanilla ice cream, fresh strawberries or a hunk of Parmesan cheese. However this extreme is far away from the watery sharp, mouth-puckering examples of balsamic we see sold in our supermarket for a fiver or less.
Balsamic vinegar is widely used, over-widely used, ridiculously so. I think people think it can be poured indiscriminately over every ingredient out there. As such it is the most overused ingredient to hit onto our shores in the 1980’s. Personally I wouldn’t put it near Mozzarella or fish or offend it by using it as a zig-zag or swirl on a plate. If it’s meant to be eaten put it on the food not the plate.
Balsamic vinegar is produced under strict guidelines in either Modena or Reggio in Emilia Romagna. It is usually made from the must of local grape varieties like Trebbiano but other varieties like Lambrusco are used. The must is cooked with sugar and a culture of bacteria, which break down the mixture and concentrate its flavour as it reduces. The vinegar is aged for at least 12 years in a series of barrels made from different woods: oak, chestnut, cherry, acacia, juniper, ash and mulberry. The water from the mixture evaporates over the years as the vinegar reduces in volume. After this time it can be called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. After certification it can then only be sold in the official bottles with a different coloured seal depending on the years of age.
There are of course crate loads of cheaper versions on the market, not all of which are bad or useless. In fact we stock one called Dodi which we really like, it has a rich caramel flavour to balance the acidity of the vinegar and is called Buon di Condimento as it cannot be called Balsamic Vinegar. It isn’t 12 years old but also not expensive. This we use for making up salad dressings, adding to sauces or giving acidity to a wild boar casserole.
To make a balsamic reduction you can add sugar to regular balsamic vinegar and reduce it down over heat. This will thicken and sweeten it to use in place of the real thing. Just don’t get carried away with it!
To learn how Balsamic Vinegar is made see our blog post here.
 
Flours and the mysterious “00”
It constantly seems strange to me that we don’t have a British version of the fine, white 00 flour that is used widely over Italy. We use it in the school and at home for making pasta, pizza, cakes, sauces and dusting fish or meat before cooking. It has the texture and feel of talcum powder making it easy to blend into sauces and turn into silky soft pasta. Its has less gluten than strong bread flour so it has less elasticity – a useful thing when you are trying to roll out a pizza or pastry than usually shrinks back with stronger flours.
00 refers to the number of times it has been through the mill in this case the most. Wholemeal would be a grade 2 flour meaning it has been through the mill the least number of times. Each time it goes through the mill more bran is taken away. Semola and Semolina means semi-milled indicating it is coarser than 00 flour, having the yellow coating to the endosperm included in the flour. Semola rimacinata is more finely ground and used to make pasta and bread in Southern Italy.
 
Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano?
In the school we use both in cooking or eat them on their own. Here are some of the differences and tips to using and storing the cheeses:-

  • Grana Padano is usually cheaper than Parmesan as it has not been kept as long. Many kitchens will therefore cook with Grana to keep the cost down but not lose on flavour.
  • Parmigiano Reggiano is usually older than Grana and therefore tends to have a firmer texture and a stronger flavour – having said that aged Grana is available so you need to look at the labels to see how old the cheeses are.
  • Both should be stored wrapped in muslin, baking parchment or cling film and kept in the fridge.
  • If they are to be eaten on their own, in hunks perhaps with Balsamic vinegar, allow the cheeses to come up to room temperature to maximise the flavour.
  • Both are a good source of energy so have a hunk with a sliced apple for an instant snack instead of something sugary.
  • Don’t throw the rinds away as they can add great flavour to stock.
  • Either cheese is often added to Italian recipes and not necessarily to make them taste cheesy. They seem to work as a flavour enhancer to other ingredients bringing out a wonderful umami sensation to dishes.

To learn how Parmesan cheese is made see our blog post here.