It seems balsamic vinaigrette is the Thousand Island of the new millennium. In almost every other restaurant in America, it is the house dressing. Culinary trends move in mysterious ways. Why now, in as much as balsamic vinegar has been around since 1000 AD? We won’t even attempt to answer that puzzler but we can tell you something about its history and fabrication, why it can range in price from $3 to $500 a bottle and a few tips on how to use it. Our interest in this product has been stimulated by the recent opening of Oliver’s, an oil and vinegar “gallery" in Stylistic Intervention on Forest Avenue.
Balsamic vinegar made its first appearance in the Greco-Roman and Egyptian periods as Saba, a liquid made by cooking Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes until they were reduced to less than 50% of their original volume. It was then used as a sweetener for just about anything. The art of its production was lost and rediscovered again around 1000 AD when historical references to aged balsamic vinegar were first made. It was valued as a prized possession and given as a special gift. Before it was employed in gastronomy, it was used as a disinfectant and as a miracle cure for everything from sore throats to labor pains and even the plague.
The basic process was simple: The harvested grapes were cooked down to a “must" (a thick, syrupy liquid) in copper cauldrons. But the secret was in the next step, when it was aged in barrels. Closely guarded family recipes included the type of wood used in the barrels and the aging and transferring of vinegar from barrel to barrel of varying woods and to smaller and smaller barrels as it reduced in volume. How long it stays in each barrel before being transferred creates distinct flavors. The longer it stays, the thicker and sweeter it becomes, picking up the nuances of the various woods.
Aged balsamic vinegar, which can only be made from white Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, has to be 12 years or older; unlike wine, however, the aging process stops once it comes out of the barrel. The dark color comes from the aging process. It will keep in a sealed bottle indefinitely but its taste will not improve. Actually, most producers suggest using it within two to three years.
Young vinegars (3-5 years) are fine for cooking and salads. Middle aged (6-12 years) are for finishing dishes and well-aged (12-150 years) are for desserts, aperitifs and digestifs. The very old ones are best used by the drop. They usually come in very small bottles and can cost as much as $500 a pop while having a connoisseurship similar to wine. Genuine artisanal balsamic vinegar can be produced only in the regions of Modena and Reggio in Italy by law and tradition.
The inexpensive commercial ones often have brown sugar or caramel added to mimic the sweetness of the better ones. Sometimes cheaper ones are boiled down to syrup to simulate the flavor of an older pricier one.
A wonderful new concession has opened in the village inside Stylistic Intervention. Oliver’s calls itself a “tasting gallery" and features a selection of olive oils and vinegars presented in a new and unique style. While traveling in Italy six years ago, the owners, Bob and Julie Brawner, found that in small towns and villages, no one would dream of buying oil or vinegar without tasting it first. Shops offer tastes from large containers, then bottle and seal your selection on site, guaranteeing freshness.
Wanting a change from their corporate lifestyle, they spent a year and a half developing a business plan and looking for the right location to present this concept. Laguna Beach won out over such places as New York, San Francisco, Napa and Newport Beach. Perhaps the fact that Bob and Julie were married here influenced their decision but they also felt the demographics were right and that the artistic and “boutiquey" atmosphere, along with the large number of tourists, made our town the perfect location. Moving from Wisconsin to realize their dream, they opened Oliver’s just a few weeks ago.
The vinegars and olive oils are in gleaming stainless steel containers with spigots. (They look a little like old-fashioned milk cans.) On the tables are a dozen different extra virgin olive oils from all over the world as well as pastas, seasonings, condiments and accessories.
On the shelves, the vinegars include a traditional balsamic, which is aged for 18 years and has an exquisite depth of flavor and a luscious sweetness, so good that it should be used only on its own to drizzle over finished dishes such as pastas or grilled vegetables or as a sweet syrup on fruit, custard or ice cream. As an introductory offer, they are selling a 12-ounce bottle at a ridiculously low price.
They have five 12-year-old balsamics that are fruit-flavored. Currently they are featuring: pomegranate, fig, raspberry, tangerine and black currant. These are made by the addition of fruit to the barrel as the vinegar ages, not by infusing it after the vinegar is finished. All are available for tasting. They also have red wine, organic red wine, French champagne and Spanish sherry vinegars.
You may walk around the shop and taste all the oils and vinegars by dispensing small amounts into tasting cups. Once you have made your decision, they will decant your choice into a dark green glass bottle, cork it and seal it.
These oils and vinegars are not for cooking. Julie explained that heat diminishes their unique flavors. They function best as dressings and finishing fillips. An absolutely delicious and simple salad dressing can be made from combining the lemon-flavored olive oil with the raspberry balsamic vinegar. Because the vinegars have so much flavor and sweetness, you can use quite a bit less oil, making it diet-friendly as well.
Think about them as a fantastic hostess gift instead of the customary bottle of wine. Oliver’s also creates custom gift baskets. Their website, which should be up and running after the holidays, will feature recipes and product information.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.