MODENA, Italy- A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine goes down, or so that’s what Mary Poppins cheerfully sang to young Michael and Jane Banks. The catchy melody danced through my mind as I held a small, plastic spoonful of black balsamic vinegar close to my lips while in Modena, Italy’s balsamic capital.
A quick tilt of the utensil sent a velvety stream of 12-year-old aged wonderment down my throat. I allowed the thick balsamic to coat my mouth and intensify in flavor before it hesitantly faded away. There was no need for a follow-up of sugar, this was the best medicine I’d ever tasted.
Balsamic vinegar throughout history has been known for its powers of relieving sore throats and even–believe it or not– combating labor pains. Romans used to drink balsamic by the glassful to maintain their health. With its a fantastic taste, I don’t blame them. I would gladly give up artificial cherry-flavored cough syrup for this.
These days balsamic is commonly used for flavor more than for its medicinal purposes. A couple drops of traditional Modena balsamic with ice cream and strawberries can create a vinegary sweetness that sends food lovers’ palates on an adventure. My first encounter with authentic, high quality balsamic was at a tasting held at Acetaia Malpighi, where the Malpighi family has been producing balsamic since 1850.
A traditional bottle of Modena balsamic is only made with the juices of Lambrusco red grapes and Trebbiano white grapes from the Modena region. After two days of cooking, the vinegar is put in barrels at room temperature to ferment. To be deemed traditional the balsamic must be aged in the barrels for at least 12 years and also tasted and certified by the Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP).
It’s a long journey for a grape to turn into Modena’s sweet nectar. But there is an old saying that things get better with age, and balsamic is no exception. Whether soaked up in bread, dressed over a salad, dripped over desserts, or poured in a glass, balsamic offers a variety of ways to be enjoyed, even if just by the spoonful.