There is one key word that differentiates the two. Standard "balsamic" vinegar can be called "Balsamic Vinegar Of Modena" but what I want to talk about is "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena". It's one small word, but in the production and taste stakes, it's wildly different.
Production of "traditional" balsamic vinegar is overseen beginning to end by certified specialists. Grape must, typically from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, is cooked and reduced by half, left to ferment naturally for a short period then matured for a minimum of 12 years. Every year it goes through a complicated multi barrel process that my glitter and crayon creative mind can't comprehend. But what I do understand is that the older the vinegar, the sweeter, more complex and exquisite it is.
Now I've always treated myself to a decent bottle of balsamic vinegar...or so I thought! I normally have a bottle around the £15-25 mark (an "aged" Waitrose own brand at the mo). I'll also have a cheaper balsamic too for cooking with like pepping up tomato sauces. But neither of these are the traditional balsamic vinegars. The really cheap ones will have additives, thickeners and caramel colourings and sulphates to mimic real balsamic. And most will have wine vinegar as an additional ingredient to the grape must, the better ones having more must than added wine vinegar than vice versa. Both of the ones in my cupboard are (as are most supermarket versions) classed as I.G.P. "condiment" vinegars (look at the labels very closely) with these additions and can be aged as little as two months and miss the fermenting stage completely but they will still be graded using the leaf system. And as long as they are processed in Modena, they can also be called "balsamic vinegar of Modena" but be made with grapes from anywhere. This is the only way demand for the stuff can be met. Consumer confusion? Absolutely!
But here in my hands I'm lucky to have my first bottle of traditional 25 year aged balsamic vinegar from a cooperative of craftsmen called La Tradizione. It's in the legally approved and controlled bottle for balsamic from Modena which is in 100ml bulb shaped bottle. If you had purchased vinegar from neighbouring Reggio Emilia, it will be in an upturned tulip shape, also 100ml. It can only be produced in these two areas of Italy in these specified bottles. If it's in any thing else or produced anywhere else then it isn't traditional balsamic. The food geek in me loves the exclusivity of it all!
Along with the luxurious box, papers, brochures and a recipe book, it's as beautiful as any perfume bottle I've ever seen. It was a shame to crack the seal open! But hey, as with all food and wine, make the eating and drinking the celebration I say.
Obviously you wouldn't cook with this calibre of vinegar. This is for enjoying as a dressing to fruit, cheese, desserts like zabaglione, vanilla panacotta and even a very good vanilla ice cream. Honestly, try it! It is of course also good sparingly over dishes like risotto, or my favourite - with a perfectly ripe, creamy avocado.
But really I should start with tasting it solo. I don't want to use the word "bouquet", I really don't, but I can't think of a better word to describe the taste, full of fruit and caramel from the grape must. The flavour is so beautifully balanced. I'd expected it to be much sweeter, but there was a definite undertone of savoury too which is why the vinegar works so well for both sweet and savoury foods. It's such a rich and powerful taste, something the condiment balsamics won't be able to get close to.
Now, traditional balsamic isn't cheap. This bottle is £78, but for something that has been lovingly attended to and produced, the value can't be challenged. If anyone wants to know what to buy me for Christmas, then this would be it. I couldn't think of a better gift for a foodie myself and I'm going to savour every drop then don't think I can be without it when it does run out!
You can read more about this brand and particular vinegar, as well as purchase in the UK from http://www.artimondo.co.uk/pdo-certified-traditional-balsamic-vinegar-of-modena-aged-25-years-100-ml.html and the full range can be seen here http://www.artimondo.co.uk/vendor_store/acetaia-la-tradizione-cooperativa-d-arte-balsamica
I was sent this product for review. Content and views, as always, are my own.