story and photo by guest blogger Seanan Forbes
Ask Spiaggia's chef, Sarah Grueneberg, about balsamic vinegar, and you're in for a happy education. Grueneberg's passionate about the artisanal liquid - and make no mistake, the real thing is artisan-made and expensive.
Because balsamic vinegar is exquisite, and because the artisans need our support, Grueneberg wants people to buy the real thing. That bargain supermarket bottle probably isn't. More likely, it's a careless composition of cider vinegar, sugar and caramel coloring. Read the label. Wince at the ingredients. Then dig into your pocket, go to Williams-Sonoma or Spiaggia (where there's a house label ready to buy), or visit Amazon.com, and pay for a premium product.
Don't begrudge the cost. Andrea Bezzecchi of Acetaia San Giacomo says, "To make a bottle of 100 milliliters of traditional balsamic vinegar, we need at least 100 kilos of grapes."
With aged balsamico, factor in 15 percent reduction every year ("A lot of angels' shares," Bezzecchi notes ruefully) and the price becomes comprehensible.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is aged in barrels. Grueneberg, who appears to have the process happily memorized, says it starts in oak and ends in chestnut.
Bezzecchi's oldest barrels are in their fifth decade of use. He inherited them - and he treats them with care. When a barrel starts to leak, he builds a new barrel around it, keeping vinegar and heritage intact.
Bezzecchi, who makes Spiaggia's vinegar, says the most important quality is that sweet-sour balance in the taste. "Thickness isn't as important ... because a product could be thick, but it could be with gums," he says. There will be none of that on Spiaggia's tables.
For real luxury, make a reservation at Spiaggia and enjoy the balsamico tasting menu. Every stage of balsamic, from saba (cooked grape must - fresh juice - that is the first stage of traditional balsamic vinegar) to the chilled-honey-thick aceto balsamico tradizionale oro (gold, aged a minimum of 25 years), is paired with food that will show it at its best. For those who are counting, that's seven stages of vinegar and seven stages of dinner. Sommelier Steven Alexander accepted what must have been a nightmare challenge and created a wine pairing for each dish.
Those who think fresh ricotta with balsamic vinegar isn't pure seduction should get ready for a change of heart.
If your luck runs to the very good, then you might try getting a cancellation at Spiaggia tonight. Bezzecchi, who's getting married in 10 days, has taken a very brief detour to Chicago. Tonight only, he'll be pouring his vinegar at Spiaggia.
The rest of us, who aren't so fortunate, will be relieved to know that, while Bezzecchi's heading back to Italy, his vinegar and the tasting menu are staying right here.