Vinegar is the natural and inevitable outcome of the winemaking process and is one of our oldest and most cherished foods. When made properly and aged carefully, it is a delicious and highly versatile substance in the kitchen and at the table. The ancient Romans routinely set an acetabulum (a bowl of vinegar) on their tables in which to dip bread during meals. Although any substance that can be fermented into alcohol can produce good vinegar (e.g. fruits, malted grain, rice), those made from wine have achieved a special status and are considered among the greatest of culinary products, and to true connoisseurs, the greatest of them all is authentic Italian balsamic vinegar.
For centuries, balsamic vinegar has been a source of great pride to the people of Northern Italy. Long before it was sold commercially, balsamic vinegar was a prized family possession, handed down through generations as it slowly aged. Sometimes on special occasions it was presented as a gift to dignitaries or very close friends. For example, history records that in 1046 Duke Boniface of Canossa gave a gift of balsamic vinegar to Roman Emperor Henry III, then ruler of the vast Holy Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages balsamic vinegar was served as a cordial and as a digestif, as well as used in cooking and as a condiment. Virtually unknown outside of Italy until relatively recently, it is now a cornerstone of the gourmet industry and highly esteemed for its intense flavor and aroma.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is unique within the world of vinegar and vinegar-based condiments. Unlike ordinary vinegar which begins as wine, balsamic vinegar is made directly from grape must, typically from grapes grown in the area of origin. The grape must is boiled in traditional open vats over fire until it reduces and thickens, concentrating the flavors. The cooked must is placed into oak barrels, inoculated with a small amount of old balsamic vinegar, and then through a complex process of fermentation and oxidation is slowly transformed into vinegar. In the serenity of the vinegar loft, the vinegar goes through a unique aging process that involves rotating through a series of progressively smaller barrels of differing woods for many years until it achieves the sublime and hauntingly delicious flavor and intoxicating aroma for which it is justly famous the world over.
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