It’s an ingredient known to cooks around the world and available to shoppers everywhere, but in Emilia-Romagna, you will never see a kitchen table without a bottle of balsamic vinegar. ‘It’s like a magic thing that sleeps during the winter and gets crazy during summer,’ says three-Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura, who credits the sauce as ‘running through his veins’. It can sell for as much as €200 but it’s also one of the most misunderstood condiments around the world, with so many variations of the historic sauce that are real and unreal. We’re here to help with a guide to balsamic vinegar so you know what to look out for and how to enjoy this quintessential taste of Italian tradition.
The first historical reference to balsamic vinegar dates back to 1046, when a bottle was reportedly given to Emperor Enrico III of Franconia as a gift. By the Middle Ages barrels of vinegar were preserved and given as gifts within Italy’s upper class thanks to its reputation as a miracle cure, good for everything from sore throats to labour pains. To this day in Italy, really good balsamic vinegar is also enjoyed neat as a palette cleanser, aperitif or digestif, especially on special occasions such as weddings. The name ‘balsamic’ comes from the vinegar's original use as a tonic or balm.
In 1965 the term Balsamic Vinegar of Modena was coined, meaning the condiment had to be created within the the region for it to be authentic. It could only be worthy of the name ‘Modena’ if it followed the exact technical method and included specific ingredients. In the 1980s the vinegar then took two forms: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP, which must follow the ancient method and ingredients, and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP, which can be produced using more modern technologies and other ingredients.