A good question came in over the weekend, which in summary said: if that is how balsamic vinegar is made, how come I can get ten ounces of it at the Valu Mart for $2.89? The reason is because the really cheap stuff is nothing more than conventionally-made wine vinegar with added sugar, thickeners and caramel color. Of course there are a lot of in-between balsamic vinegar products too. Among the more expensive are mass-produced versions from Italy. These come in two designations, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale de Reggio Emilia (each town has its own labeling system, you see). A white or red label means the vinegar has aged for at least 12 years, silver for 18 and gold for 25 or more (sell the kids).
On the lower end are several domestic varieties that deliver pretty well. Young 3 to 5-year-old vinegars run about ten bucks for eight ounces, and are all the muscle you’ll need for a baking adventure like last week’s pear tart. Of course if you feel like going over the top, go for an eight year. You won’t be disappointed. Twelve year and older vinegars should be appreciated solely for what they are, and served as simply as possible. Dribbled on a plain panna cotta, for example, or even sipped straight from a liqueur glass. This is how the very best balsamic vinegars are consumed in the old country today, though I should add they they haven’t always been produced for pleasure. Traditionally (and by that I mean back into the Middle Ages) they were given as medicines. And in fact that’s what the name “balsamic” means: “health giving”.