Monday, November 26, 2012

Process of making and paradox of Balsamic Vinegar from Modena

Balsamic vinegar is traditional to the province of Modena where it was made already hundreds of years ago, a region just North of the Apennine Mountain ridge at the beginning of the Pianura Padana -
a very flat and fertile area famous for anything but wine (rice fields, cows for cheese, pigs for ham, etc).

7 kinds of grapes are allowed in the production of the balsamic, the most noteworthy being white Trebbiano and red Lambrusco (above). The grapes don't have to come from the region, but any good producer with self respect will make sure that they do.

Balsamic vinegar differs from wine vinegar as it doesn't undergo an alcoholic fermentation. The vinegar is made directly from the grape juice which is heated to allow an initial concentration (picture below "mosto cotto" grape juice before aging process).

Thanks to the addition of a "ceppo" (mother) the acidification occurs and ensures a sweeter sensation at the end. The aging takes place in small wooden barrels made out of different sorts of sweet woods (oak, cherry, walnut, etc) where no air-conditioning nor heating is allowed - traditionally under the roof tops of the houses in Modena.

This allows the bacteria to thrive in the summer when it's hot and an evaporation occurs, and in the winter the vinegar has time to rest and deposit. Year after year this process is allowed to take place, but because the product always looses in volume, the barrels used need to become smaller and smaller. It can easily take a decade to obtain a decent balsamic vinegar with the proper density and complexity, hence there will be barrels of many different sizes in an "Acetaia" in Modena - these series of barrels from bigger to smaller are called "batterie" and are often dedicated to a person in the family.

To be classified "Tradizionale" or "Tradizionale Extra Vecchio" (always bottled in the same 100 ml and packaged in brown boxes as you can see on picture above) is a DOP regulation and requires a min of 12 yrs or 25 yrs of aging in the barrels (if you want to read more: We balsamic vinegar snobs consider this stuff to the be the "real" balsamic vinegar - but problematic is the cost of these bottles, often starting at around 50 euros a bottle.

So balsamic vinegar takes years to make and once it reaches the shelves of very special stores the cost is exuberant. In fact, most people have never tasted "real" balsamic.
A commercial product was created to simulate the original one but beware, this sort of balsamic vinegar doesn't refer to a PROCESS, it is made up from wine vinegar with addition of coloring, caramel, arabic gum and corn starch - so it is a pure IMITATION. This product could take a few days in making and sell cheaply and is exported around the world as Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, even though it really FAKE.

So what to do if you want to get your hands on the real stuff but don't want to break the bank? Luckily a lot of balsamic vinegar producers have understood the problematic for the end consumer and hence produce something that's labelled as "condimento" or "aceto balsamico di modena IGP" (if the bottle is at least 250ml) and to cut costs this stuff can be one of these 4 things:
1) made by the producers of the "Tradizionale" and in the same way, but not under the supervision and approval of the DOP Consortium which is costly.
2) made by the producers of the "Tradizionale,  but not aged as long so could not be approved by the Consortium.
3) made the same way as the "Tradizionale", but outside the region recognized for DOP (Modena & Reggio Emilia)
4) made by a mixture of cheap FAKE balsamic vinegar of blended with some concentrated grape must in various proportions.

It just isn't easy to be a consumer nowadays because how the hell are you supposed to know all of these things - and still when you know it, it isn't the easiest of things to navigate the label! It's almost hopeless, however, don't give up because once you taste the real stuff you'll be in heaven.
We have sourced the most fantastic balsamic vinegar made from a producer just outside Modena who also produces the Tradizionale (all the pictures are from the farm of our producer). We sell it in our shop in Siena and can ship it, too ( It is the stuff that goes under point no 1) and it is beautifully rich, and is of course perfect on salads, but this balsamic is totally amazing on pasta as well, or try it on parmesan cheese shavings, steak, or why not on fresh fruit as strawberries and peaches or even on vanilla ice cream (wow!). So just like great olive oil, you don't cook with great balsamic. It just sits on the table at all times and you add it at your pleasure to anything you like!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Truffles - mushrooms or chocolates?

Truffles - the mushroom
When we speak about black, brown or white truffles in Tuscany we're most likely talking about an underground fungus. Sounds a bit funky the first time around, until you understand it's simply a mushroom that's rare and only to be found around oak trees in special climatic conditions. Different kinds of truffles can be found year around and "hunting" is done with the help of specially trained dogs. Autumn is when the precious white truffle can be found that demands skyrocketing prices. If you've never tasted a truffle the only way I can describe it...a mixture of garlic, dirt and autumn mists. I know that sounds totally rabbling but really that's what it tastes like. Apparently truffles ooze "umami" - the 5th taste that we don't all recognize very well....

Truffles applied in the Tuscan kitchen
Best combination of a truffle from any season is on pasta, in my opinion. However, you'll find it applied all sorts of ways in areas that have the fresh truffles available (I've had it on eggs, pizza and in desserts). If you're not adventurous stick to the classic "tagliatelle con scaglie di tartufo" - fresh strips of egg pasta with truffle shavings on top.

So white truffles are seasonal to November. When traveling to Tuscany other times of the year you can still have the delight of trying truffles, either the fresh spring or summer truffles - or infused ones. For example in Tuscany it's common to find pecorino cheese with truffle, honey with truffle, truffle salt - and maybe you've heard you should try truffle olive oil? Keep in mind that most "truffle oils" have added aroma or essence of truffle! So look for some real infused truffle in there, and if you can't find it, don't buy it!

Truffles - the chocolate praline
For a long time I was really confused about the double use of the truffle word. It's international so I've encountered it in every language I could possibly need to use. Because "truffle" is also a word used to describe a chocolate that has the shape and the look of a real live truffle, but of couse it doesn't have any real truffle in it! I was puzzled for years...not to the point of irritation...just to the point of "oh well, I still have lots to learn..." Finally, I bothered to look up the history of the chocolate version to discover why it carries the homonymous name. Chocolate truffles got their name in France inspired by their resemblance to black mushroomy truffles. The latter were reserved exclusively for the rich, chocolate truffles were more popular and hence truffles have become more renowned by the public in their coco version!

Truffle mushrooms & Coco
And then of course you could be lucky to find the combination of cioccolate and truffles - this one is stuffed with white truffles and was so delicious that I had to taste not just one, but two just to make sure I liked it :) A very strong and intense truffle taste, but very nicely packed into to milky chocolate.