Dubbed "Italy's Food Basket," Emilia-Romagna is home to many of the country's most renowned foods: Prosciutto di Parma, Mortadella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and balsamic vinegar to name a few. Cooks in the region have a penchant for rich flavors and spectacular presentation, and are especially skilled at making all manner of stuffed pasta by hand.
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Emilia-Romagna is the birthplace of that most delectable of vinegars: aceto balsamico, or balsamic vinegar. Syrupy, rich balsamic vinegar, aged in wooden barrels until it acquires the depth and complexity of a fine wine, hails from the city of Modena. Dubbed balsamic thanks to its curative powers, it is still fermented and aged just like it was in the Middle Ages, when only the noble classes could afford it.
Few foods have enjoyed the widespread fame of balsamic vinegar, not only as a condiment, but as a medicine of sorts, since the turn of the second millennium. This luxurious, heady nectar has been produced in and around the city of Modena in Emilia-Romagna since the year 1000, and myths and legends have long attested to its awesome medicinal properties.
In 1046, a Benedictine monk pronounced balsamic vinegar salutary; Lucrezia Borgia sipped it to fight childbirth pains; Francesco IV, Duke of Modena, used it to soothe his ulcer; and composer Gioacchino Rossini drank it to calm his nerves.
Made mostly in Spilamberto and throughout the province of Bologna and Reggio nell'Emilia, balsamic vinegar is one of Emilia's oldest, and proudest, products. To make this prized nectar, the must of Trebbiano and other grapes grown in the Emilian countryside is slowly cooked over an open fire and reduced to as little as one-third of its original volume (the exact amount of reduction depends on the vintage, the sugar content of the grapes, and the producer's preference). The cooked must is filtered and poured into oak barrels, where it matures over the winter. In the spring, the aging process begins, and lasts a minimum of 12 years: the vinegar is poured into ever-smaller casks made of different kinds of wood (oak, chestnut, cherry, ash, and mulberry), each of which imparts a particular aroma and color to the final product.
The barrels, held in an attic where the sun's rays are allowed to filter in and play their part in the vinegar's evolution, are topped up with vinegar from the next larger barrel so that they are always two-thirds full. It takes 350 kilos (770 pounds) of grapes to produce 15 liters (15 quarts) of vinegar, which explains the high cost of genuine balsamic vinegar.
The longer the balsamic vinegar ages, the more complex, and expensive, it becomes: 2 months of aging in wooden barrels is the minimum required by the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena (known as CABM), but a special version is aged 3 years or longer to yield a rich, deep vinegar with a lingering bouquet, a fuller body, and a sweeter, mellower flavor with hints of wood. Even better than Aceto Balsamico di Modena is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, which is aged a minimum of 12 years and up to 25 years or longer... even 100 years is not unheard of! That one little word--Tradizionale--makes all the difference, and means that the vinegar was aged longer than other balsamic vinegars.
Authentic balsamic vinegar—not the commercial stuff sold for $2.99 a bottle, which contains ingredients such as concentrated grape must, caramel or wine vinegar—is more of a glaze than a vinegar; rich, thick, sweet, and aromatic, its acidity is perfectly balanced by its sweetness.
To ensure that consumers are able to differentiate between authentic balsamic vinegar from Modena and lesser imitation vinegars, the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena has created a special seal that can only be placed around bottles that pass their stringent tests. If a bottle of vinegar is wearing the CAMB seal, the vinegar is guaranteed to have been made from indigenous grape varietals and produced and bottled in its area of origin, in or around Modena. A burgundy CAMB seal means the vinegar was aged a minimum of 2 months; a white and gold CAMB seal means the vinegar was aged at least 3 years. As for Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, look for the words Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena on the bottle.
Rich, thick, and aromatic, its acidity balanced by its sweetness, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is markedly different from other wine vinegars, whose pronounced acidity and pungent taste can oftentimes be jolting. Its deeper, mellower flavor makes it an ideal choice for much more than just dressing salads. Try a drop of it in pan sauces for meat or fish, where it lends its inimitable aroma and a pleasant yet subdued note of acidity. Rather delicate, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is best suited to subtle preparations: sprinkled over steamed vegetables or a platter of thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma, drizzled on fresh field strawberries and vanilla-bean gelato, or whisked into warm zabaione.
The “balsamic” or therapeutic properties of this delectable vinegar have been overshadowed by its culinary virtues in recent years, and cooks across the globe now rely on its subtle sweetness to lend their dishes--from antipasto to dessert--a lift.
The balsamic dressing below is quite versatile; try it with baby greens or grilled vegetables. Make a double batch and refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 weeks.
Place the shallots, tarragon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper in jar. Close with a tight-fitting lid and shake to blend.
Pour the dressing over the fennel in a bowl. Toss, taste for salt, adjust if needed, and serve after 15 minutes. Serves 6
As the butternut squash roasts, the balsamic evaporates, leaving behind a rich flavor and color that permeates the vegetable.
Preheat the oven to 400°.
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add the cubed squash; cook 5 minutes, or until just tender when pierced with a knife. Drain.
Place the boiled squash in a roasting pan. Add the chicken broth, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and sage, and toss. Sprinkle with the Parmigiano. Roast in the preheated oven 30 minutes, or until golden on top. Serve hot. Serves 8
After the scaloppine are browned in olive oil, the pan is deglazed with chicken stock and balsamic vinegar to create a luxurious sauce.
Dredge the scaloppine in the flour, shaking off excess. Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over a high flame. Add the scaloppine in a single layer. Season with salt and pepper.
Cook until golden on the bottom, about 2 minutes; turn. Cook on the other side until golden, about 2 minutes. Remove to a platter; cover with foil to keep warm.
Add the shallots and garlic to the skillet; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the broth and reduce over high heat for 1 minute, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the skillet. Add the balsamic vinegar; cook until the sauce reduces and becomes syrupy, about 1 minute. Stir in the basil, return the chicken to the skillet, and turn a few times to coat with the sauce and to warm through. Serve hot. Serves 4
Traditional balsamic vinegar is thick, sweet, and nectar-like... nothing like the cheap substitutes found on supermarket shelves. In Italy, it is often sprinkled over freshly picked wild strawberries for dessert. Look for authentic balsamic vinegar from Modena in gourmet stores. If wild strawberries are not available, buy the tiniest, freshest, most fragrant cultivated berries around.
Place the strawberries in 6 goblets. Drizzle with the vinegar and enjoy immediately. Serves 6
This velvety soup is especially soothing on chilly winter evenings.
Melt the butter in a deep pot over medium heat. Add the squash, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and cook 10 minutes, covered. Add the chicken broth and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered, until the squash is tender, about 20 minutes, stirring once in a while.
Transfer the contents of the pot in several batches to a blender or food processor, and purée until smooth. Return to the pot and add the heavy cream. Warm gently, and serve immediately. Serves 8
This simple spinach preparation is delicious alongside poached eggs for a lazy Sunday brunch.
Melt the butter in a deep 14-inch sauté pan over a medium-high flame. Add the spinach by the handful to the hot pan, and cook until it is wilted and there is no liquid left in the pan, about 5 minutes, stirring often or tossing with metal tongs. It may seem like all the spinach won't fit at first, but as it wilts, it will shrink remarkably.
Season the spinach with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook 15 more minutes, stirring once in a while. Add the Parmigiano and stir until it is melted through. Cook 5 minutes more and serve hot. Serves 4
Published in Rustico: Regional Italian Country Cooking by Micol Negrin, published by Clarkson N. Potter: