Balsamic vinegar is an extremely popular and healthy condiment used on salads, meats, fish and nearly every other food imaginable. Here are a few surprising facts about one of Italy’s most famous exports.
1. Balsamic vinegar was once a medicine. Early Italians considered the product a reliable serum for everything from headaches to serious illnesses, but only merchants, royalty and other rich individuals could afford it. Balsamic vinegar wasn’t considered a food product for hundreds of years.
2. In the 1500s, Balsamic vinegar became a popular wedding gift in Modena, a tradition that continues today.
3. Cask woods directly affects the taste of fine vinegar. The most popular woods include cherry and chestnut, although preference for different types of casks vary throughout Italy.
4. There are several classes of vinegar approved by official Italian consortia. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is the highest quality balsamic vinegar, made by trained artisans in Modena. Acedo Balsamico di Modena is the less expensive, commercial version of the product. Many consumers buy the middle ground Condimento grade, which is a mix of the two other grades.
5. The adjective “balsamic” comes from the Italian descriptor “balsam,” which means “to cure.” This is part of the product’s legacy as a disinfectant, medicine and digestive aid.
6. The production process for artisan-quality vinegar is extremely secretive. Italy’s Modena and Reggio Emilia monitor and regulate the process, but do not publish explicit instructions for creating the product, instead using vague descriptions of moving “some amount” of product from one cask to another in their official guidelines.
7. Quality balsamic vinegar manufacturers harvest their grapes as late as possible. This allows for better taste due to the warmth of the late harvesting season, but adds to the scarcity of fine vinegar.
8. Of all grape products, balsamic vinegar has one of the longest shelf lives when stored properly. Connoisseurs sometimes store fine balsamic vinegar for 30 years or more, taking care to keep glass bottles away from sunlight, which can damage the taste of the product.
9. Vinegar prices vary greatly depending on grade and aging. Artisan-quality balsamic vinegar regularly fetches prices of $3500 or more. However, Americans can import quality vinegar that has an age of 2-12 years for only a few dollars.
10. Balsamic vinegar was popular with Italy’s upper classes, but it was not popular with the masses until the 1860s after the unification of Italy. Italians adopted balsamic vinegar as a symbol of their new country, and the product quickly became popular throughout Europe.