Want to impress your foodie friends? How about bestowing upon them a $100 bottle of authentic balsamic vinegar? Made in the northern Italian towns of Reggio or Modena, such balsamic is to the $3 supermarket variety what a Mercedes is to a Yugo. Don't even think about mixing it in salad dressing. This dark brown liquid is sipped like fine port or doled out in eyedropper quantities on top of fish, steak, strawberries, and even ice cream.
So how did this seemingly prosaic foodstuff attain such value? A thousand years ago the ruling families of Modena and Reggio made balsamic vinegar out of pressed and cooked-down trebbiano grapes, called must, that they aged in successively smaller wooden barrels. Each year, they poured the contents of a barrel into the next smaller one, which was possible due to evaporation. This process continued on down the line until they reached the smallest barrel, which contained the end product. They would then top off the largest barrel with fresh must. The result was a viscous, sweet, and tart-tasting substance that was drunk to toast a friendship, an honored guest, or an impending wedding. It was also used as a restorative to combat everything from the common cold to the plague.
Fast-forward to the late 1970s, when Italian chefs "discovered" this rich elixir and began drizzling it on simple grilled foods. Seizing an obvious business opportunity, a spate of producers in Italy and elsewhere developed cheap imitation balsamics made of wine vinegar and sugar or caramel--and promoted them as a salad dressing ingredient. Soon after, the Italian government granted alarmed makers of the real stuff a joint Domain of Control (DOC), allowing them to put the stamp of authenticity on their products. Today, only vinegar at least 12 years old and made in the time-honored way can carry the official Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Reggio seals.
AUTENTICO. For such a designation, you pay $50 and up for 100 milliliters. Bottles marked "Extra-vecchio" from makers such as Giuseppe Giusti and Malpighi are a minimum of 25 years old and cost $90 to $300. Some very fine producers in Modena and Reggio--Cavalli, Caranidini, and Fini, for example--make traditional balsamic vinegars but don't want to go through the hassle and expense of getting DOC approval. Their products are significantly cheaper--$7 to $45 for 250 milliliters. Fiorucci, Estense, and Federzoni sell decent mass-market balsamics for $3 to $5. If the label has the letters API and MO or RE, at least you know it was made in Modena or Reggio.
Why pay so much dough for genuine balsamic vinegar? "Sharing a sip is the ultimate testament to friendships that become thicker, sweeter, and more complex as the years go by," says Louis DiPalo, owner of DiPalo Fine Foods in Manhattan's Little Italy, which sells many high-quality brands. For those less inclined to drink in the spiritual nature of this substance, you should know that it tastes really good, too.