Authentic balsamic vinegar that is created in the traditional painstaking artisan way is so revered by Italians that it was reserved only for the highest in the land, being the royal family of the day. Even as recently as the 1980’s it was still considered such a sought after item that it was offered as gifts to friends and family but could not be purchased in stores. That respect for this precious commodity is still retained today and in the regions of Italy where balsamic is produced, a gift of a small cask of sublime liquid is commonly offered to a new bride. Balsamic vinegar that is aged in the cask and processed in the traditional artisan way is treated with the same respect as an excellent vintage wine. So, it is unsurprising that some Italians actually treat it as an after dinner drink. This type of vinegar differs from the commercial variety as it is not usually heated for fear that its flavor will be altered. Instead it is used cold as a condiment for meat, poultry, salads, bread and even fruit.
Control of artisan made balsamic vinegar is strict in Italy and to check for authenticity you should see the letters APIMO or APIRE which indicate that the balsamic vinegar is made in either Modeno or Reggio respectively. Artisan made balsamic vinegar is an expensive quality and the older the balsamic the more expensive it becomes. This is largely due to the very precise method of processing the grape wine which is decanted drop by drop and aged in oak casks. You can expect authentic balsamic vinegar made by this method to be aged for at least twelve years. The vinegar is then rigorously tested and will only be accepted if absolutely perfect. This attention to detail even extends to the bottles into which this precious liquid will be decanted. These bottles are recognisable by their shape which is globelike and made of glass and are always have a cork stopper. Again like fine wine balsamic vinegar bottles display colored labels which indicate the standard of the contents. A superior vintage balsamic vinegar will display a gold label and is, unsurprisingly, expensive. These superior vintage balsamic vinegars are in effect antique and should be not be used lavishly. The appearance of this liquid is identified by its rich deep brown molasses appearance. This type of balsamic will be characteristically like a vintage brandy that has been aged and is full bodied and smooth and has no acidic aftertaste.
Balsamic vinegar made in this traditional authentic method means that the balsamic vinegar from one artisan will differ from another, because of the oak casks or barrels that are used to age the liquid. An artisan will try to preserve his barrels for further use and even if the barrel begins to disintegrate the useable parts will be kept to be used in the creation of a new barrel.
In Italy it is possible to be able to observe the traditional method of processing balsamic vinegar by visiting the home of an artisan and sampling some of the finished product. Much pride and precision is taken in creating this liquid gold and the process of its creation is fascinating to watch and highly recommended.
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