By Max Widmer
And that goes for you too, temporary florentines. It’s the sad truth of things around here. Sorry to be the Tuscan grinch, but what you’ve ben eating is a diluted phony.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) aka “the real stuff” has actually been around since the Dark Ages. A young Michelangelo probably sampled the delicacy long before he first chipped into block-form David. But you’d need deep pockets to enjoy it, then and now.
Less than 3,000 gallons of TBV are produced each year, and the process is grueling. TBV’s legally mandated to age for an absolute minimum 12 years before becoming commercially available (in most cases it’s closer to 25, but can go as long as 100 for the real aficianados out there…). That’s after fire-heated grapes are scorched for 24 hours, pressed, and fermented in a series of five size-descending wooden barrels. While the vinegar undergoes fermentation, and concentration becomes vital, barrel size decreases accordingly over time. And even after years of meticulous aging, the vinegar still has battles to wage before seeing shelf-life.
Legal restrictions of the Emilia Romagna and Regio Emilia regions (the two traditional powerhouses in the balsamic game and the only regions that actually produce the “real” stuff), mandate an extensive series of tests before giving a stamp of approval. Six categories are microscopically picked apart — including chemical composition, geography, climate of growing and aging zones, and even bottling and label presentation. And that’s before a pompous panel of balsa-junkies taste test the finished product. Even if all the standards are met, a barrel can be tossed for simply “not tasting right.” So only the elite remain. And that’s what you’ll get if you buy one of these bad boys.
Purists and connoissuers refuse to cook with it — disgraceful! — and will only consume it in “virgin form” (no heat, no additives, NOTHING that could steal the flavor). Yet the thick, sweet syrup of TBV is often considered a delicious companion to ice cream or fruit.
So how much would a jar of TBV actually set you back?
Only about $250 for a 3.5 ounce bottle. And that can easily double based on how long it’s aged.
So for now stick with the knock-offs, guys. Pretend to bask in the glory of “authentic italian balsamic” every time you drizzle some over your antipasto mosaic and proceed to get the perfectly angled instagram before diggin’ in. #NOFILTER #TraditionalMEALinFLORENCE!! Cause c’mon, it’s still pretty damn good where ever you go around here.
EDITORS NOTE: Traditional or not, Osteria del Gatto e la Volpe on Ghibellina has the best balsamic vinegar I’ve ever tasted. You shouldn’t be allowed to leave Florence without trying it.