Everyone who loves to eat has experienced a private moment of awe over some particular food or drink. Such moments refuse description—it's impossible to reduce to words a perfectly ripe pear, the luscious synthesis of a slow-cooked braise, or vintage wine that has found its way to fullness. We're first riveted by the utter singularity of what we sense; then we're caught up in a complex architecture of taste. We praise the gardener, cook, or winemaker, and rightly so, but what caused our reaction can really only occur at the hands of nature, under the sealed lid of the braising pot, or by the secret alchemy of time.
The first time I tasted real aged balsamic vinegar, I felt awe. I was asked to extend my hand to form a well between my thumb and wrist. Into this crevice my host poured several heavy drops of a dark, shiny syrup as thick as molasses from a small, heavy flask. What began as a simple contrast between sweet and sour deepened into penetrating layers of flavor that mingled the aromas of wood and cooked fruit, harmoniously balanced on a taut line of acidity. From there it moved into a more evocative dimension that sent me on a goose-chase for descriptors—cedar chest, dried fruit, stewed cherries, tobacco, but also something more mysterious and hard to describe, for aged balsamic vinegar tastes of time itself.
Not everything labeled balsamic vinegar is the real thing
Before it was introduced to the American market in the late 1970s, balsamic vinegar was known only to those who might have had the chance to hear of it or taste it on their travels through the Italian cities of Modena or Reggio Emilia and the surrounding countryside. Balsamic vinegar's roots go back to antiquity. In the Emila-Romagna, it remained a guarded family tradition that existed well outside of commerce. Today there's hardly a supermarket that doesn't carry on its shelves at least half a dozen brands of balsamic vinegar in a confusing variety of shapes, sizes, prices, and claims of vintage. Because there are no U.S. standards of identity for balsamic vinegar, both the imported and domestically produced ones vary widely in their approximation of the real thing.