19 July 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Balsa Me, Balsa Me Mucho

SARONNO, Italy – There’s something going on here that I don’t quite understand. Every other food product produced in Italy, be it olive oil or saffron or any of the thousands of others, have one or more stories regarding their origin. We know that olive oil, for example, has been around since the days of the Etruscans, and that saffron made its way to Italy via the Middle East. A few details may have been altered over the years, but the basic histories are there. Italians know the where, when and how and sometimes why these food products became part of Italian cuisine. Except for one: balsamic vinegar.
 Este Ducal Palace in Modena
It's true that there are some mentions of a balsamic vinegar ‘special’ that appear in the 1508 court records of Duke Alfonso I d’Este of Modena, the husband of Lucrezia Borgia, however, it isn't until 1747 that the first official record of the word ‘vinegar’ appears next to the word balsamic (balsalmico in Italian) in the Official Register of grape harvesting and wine sales for the Duke of Modena’s secret cellars. 

Then there are the 1796 documents and manuscripts that talk of reinforcements guarding 36 barrels in the third tower of the Ducal palace that were destined for S. Dominic's. Since there is no S. Dominic church in Modena, I have to think they are talking about the Cathedral of S. Dominic in Bologna, which isn’t all that far away. It was not that unusual for the ruling family of a region in the Papal States under the control of the Pope in Rome to make a ‘donation’ or two to the local churches.
 Trebbiano Grapes
What I don’t understand is why there isn’t more information on just how this elixir of a vinegar was developed. Did it happen in an secluded monastery like grappa and brandy? Did a winegrower from Modena have a AHA! Moment when some of his wine went bad?  Did the mad alchemist Giuseppe Balsamo have anything to do with it? He was, of course, a man accused of heresy, magic, conjury and Freemasonry and sentenced to death by the Inquisition. Who’s to say he didn’t have his hand (or magic wand) in the development of balsamico too? After all his name was Balsamo.
Guiseppe Balsamo
And just what is balsamic vinegar anyway? First of all, vinegar in Italy is always made from wine. Ordinary vinegar is fermented and can be produced in 6 months. Good quality wine vinegar takes a little longer, about a year and a half. Then there's balsamic vinegar. 

There are actually two kinds of balsamic vinegar made in two different ways. The centuries-old traditional way begins with late-harvest grapes (usually white Trebbiano) that grow in the providence of Emilia-Romagna. The sweet, raisiny juice, skin, and seeds, called grape must, is boiled in open vats until it reduces to about half of its original volume. This concentrated must is then added to the largest of a collection of aged wooden barrels. 
 Balsamic Vinegar Barrels
There are barrels of different sizes and types of wood including oak, cherry, juniper, and mulberry, and the barrels are not closed or sealed but merely covered with a cloth to allow evaporation. Each year, before the vinegar maker adds the new must to the largest barrel, he transfers some of more concentrated must to the next largest barrel and so on down the line, before finally removing a liter or two of the oldest vinegar from the smallest barrel. What he pulls from that small barrel is traditional balsamic vinegar and can cost more than $200 dollars a bottle – a bottle being 125 ml or 4.25 fluid ounces.

Balsamic vinegar has become America's culinary sweetheart and accounts for 45 percent of all vinegar sales in the USA. You can buy a 500 ml/16 fluid ounce bottle in the grocery store for  $2 or $3. Is it the same vinegar that has been aged for 12 years in wooden barrels? Not quite. Actually supermarket vinegar isn’t aged at all, and the flavor comes from a chemical formula that is added in rather than developed. There is also something for sale in the USA called ‘essence of balsamic’ that you can sprinkle on your salads to give them that ‘balsamic’ taste. But in my humble opinion that really is scraping the bottom of the barrel, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Filet of Beef with Balsamic Vinegar Sauce
Here is a very simple recipe of beef with a balsamic vinegar sauce. Thinking back now to the great hamburgers with béarnaise sauce I used to devour with such pleasure at a small French café in Old Philadelphia, I think this sauce would work on a good quality hamburger as well. But you never read that here.

Beef Fillet with Balsamic vinegar

4 Servings

  1 ¾ lb beef fillet
  1 ½ oz all-purpose flour
 ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  2 tablespoons olive oil
  ½ cup meat broth
  salt to taste

Cut the fillet into thick slices, flatten with a meat pounder, coat in flour, then shake to remove any excess, then salt them. (Obviously the slices in the photo have not been pounded or floured, which are both typical Italian cooking techniques. The purpose of the pounding is to even out the slices so they cook evenly, but I still haven't figured out why they flour meat before they fry it. Any ideas?)

Cook on both sides over very high heat, basting them with some balsamic vinegar. Meanwhile, separately, prepare a fairly liquid sauce with the remaining vinegar, a little meat stock and the flour.

When the fillets are cooked, cover them with the sauce and serve hot.

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