The traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia (legally recognised in 1987) takes us to a higher level in the culinary heritage of the area, where skills handed down over centuries have produced a veritable cultural asset.
A monk called Donizone, a biographer living at the time of Countess Matilda in the 12th century, wrote of a laudatum acetum which was taken from Canossa and presented to the Emperor in a silver flask.
The documented history of balsamic vinegar from Reggio (and the better known produce from Modena) goes back to the Renaissance, when the aristocracy first, and later the middle classes, started the custom of making their own vinegar at home by leaving boiled local grape must to age in special barrels.
The end product requires a very long period of aging in a set of barrels made in increasingly smaller sizes and various types of wood. The vinegar is topped up on a regular basis and the barrels are changed each year. The result of such patience and skill is a dark brown, viscose liquid with a penetrating aroma and an inimitable sweet and sour flavour that has nothing in common with normal wine vinegar apart from the name. The price of traditional balsamic vinegar reflects its true value, and it sold in small, 100 cc bottles with special, colour-coded labels (crimson, silver and gold, in order of age).
By law, balsamic can only be called “stravecchio” (extra mature) after it has aged for twenty-five years in the barrel. Naturally, such a special product deserves a special occasion and should be used sparingly. Balsamic vinegar goes well with everything. It combines perfectly with elegant salads but also turns plain boiled meat or a sliver of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese into something truly special. You can drink it by the teaspoon as an elixir, or drizzle a few drops over ice cream. But don’t make the mistake of confusing it with the usual, low cost “balsamic vinegar” you might find at the supermarket.
The slight but fundamental difference is summed up in the word “traditional” – the hallmark of a product that is unequalled anywhere in the world.