All of a sudden vinegars have started appearing on supermarket shelves. A few years ago, all you could find was that nasty ‘white’ vinegar which is just acetic acid diluted with water, which leaves a harsh aftertaste. The brown equivalent is no better. It just has colour in it. It is not that India doesn’t produce good natural vinegars. A company called Kolah from Navsari makes excellent sugar cane vinegar and you have toddy vinegar from Goa, which is more suited to cooking than salads. Distribution is a problem and you don’t find these products in all cities. With food habits becoming more global and the popularity of salads increasing, I have been noticing a whole bunch of new vinegars appearing—white and red wine, cider and balsamic vinegar from Modena in Italy.
I visited Modena a few years ago. It is very close to Parma in the area of Italy known as ‘the belly’ since it produces great food products—Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, salami and what is commonly called balsamic vinegar. There is, however, nothing about the appearance of this thick, radiant dark-brown essence to suggest its extraordinarily complex fragrance and sweet-sour taste. It was once used as a tonic to cure illnesses, hence its name, which means ‘like a balm’. It is probably the most expensive vinegar in the world, partly because of the complex and lengthy process needed to make and mature it, and partly because only a small quantity is produced each year. We visited a small family brewery, which together with 30 or 40 other families, only produces about 8,000 litres a year. These families form what is called the consorzio, a sort of balsamic vinegar mafia. They safeguard the quality, bottle design and price. The bottles or flacons are like little, old fashioned medicine bottles and they bear a stamp of the consorzio. I was shocked how rudimentary the whole set-up was, like a small-scale industry with barrels everywhere. The vinegar is made from cooked grapes ‘must’ matured by a long and slow process through natural fermentation. This is followed by progressive concentration by ageing in a series of casks made from different types of wood and without adding any other spices or flavourings. In fact, each wood gives a different aroma to the product. Some of the typical woods are oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper and mulberry.
So where do the millions of bottles of balsamic vinegar in our shops come from? Don’t worry, it’s not dodgy stuff. The real thing has to be aged for a minimum of 12 years and will set you back about $50 (about Rs2,200) upwards for that minuscule bottle. Due to the explosion in demand, burnt sugar is added to a tiny proportion of the real stuff and diluted down. Price is a good indication of quality.
Balsamic vinegar can be used in cooking, traditionally to flavour pork and calf liver. It is poured in droplets, by purists, on real vanilla ice cream or fresh strawberries. I love it dribbled on warm, grilled fresh figs. What we see here in our shops is better suited to salads. Now that the effects of global warming have firmly set in, here is one of my favourite recipes where I combine balsamic with orange, to create a Sicilian-inspired salad.
4 cups mixed lettuce
6 pieces Italian sun-dried tomatoes
8 spears asparagus
½ cup Parmesan cheese shavings
10 black olives
For the dressing:
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp chunky marmalade
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp pepper, coarsely ground
½ tsp salt
Whisk together all the dressing ingredients. Blanch the asparagus spears in boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove and plunge into iced water. Put all the lettuce into a large salad bowl. Throw in the sun-dried tomatoes, olives and blanched asparagus. Pour in the dressing. Toss. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese shavings.
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