Divine Dash No sour grapes: Balsamic vinegar will take almost any kind of food from drab to dramatic -- and just a little dab will do you.

February 14, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

*TC You use it by the drop, not by the dollop. But it has the power to make salads sing and pastas pop. It can cheer up a grilled chicken breast, glaze a festive fowl such as duck or turkey, add sparkle to roasted vegetables.

"It's an incredible product. It has such complex characteristics," said Peter Zimmer, chef and part owner of the new Joy America Cafe, singing the praises, as most chefs do, of balsamic vinegar, now grown so popular it might be called the condiment of the '90s.

For a long time, only chefs knew the secret of this carefully crafted and long-aged concoction, with its bold, distinctive, sweet-sour taste, as complex as wine. It's quite different from the thinner, sour taste of ordinary vinegars. But recently the rest of the cooking crowd has caught on, and the once-scarce product is now available in supermarkets as well as specialty and gourmet stores.

Balsamic vinegar, in fact, is made much like wine, from grapes such as white Trebbiano or the red Lambrusco, and it is aged in wooden casks. Ordinary vinegar is made from wine or fermented fruit juices, but aceto balsamico tradizionale is made exclusively with unfermented crushed grapes that are condensed by heating and aging, according to Burton Anderson in "Treasures of the Italian Table: Italy's Celebrated Foods and the Artisans Who Make Them" (Morrow, 1994, $20). As it is reduced, the vinegar is moved from large barrels into ever-smaller ones, aging and evaporating until the vinegar is concentrated and the color of dark caramel.

"The people of Emilia often use balsamico on its own as a distinctive flavoring with meat, fish, and vegetable dishes or as the prime ingredient in the sauces that enrich the local cooking," Mr. Anderson writes. "Admirers will sip the finest aged tradizionale straight from a small glass or teaspoon, following its ancient role as a cordial, digestive, or elixir."

Like true champagne, traditional balsamic vinegar is strictly regulated in Italy to meet the highest standards of its designation. Only in two places, parts of Modena and Reggio nell'Emilia, can producers claim their product to be the authentic thing, "aceto balsamico tradizionale."

For most of its history, traditional aceto balsamico was not exported; it was a family affair, with each estate having its own "acetaia," or vinegar room, in an attic or a loft, Mr. Anderson says, and the premises were a venerated heirloom. The vinegar was used at home, or given as gifts to friends.

As word of the pleasures of aceto balsamico tradizionale got out in recent years, however, demand began to rise. Nontraditional producers sprang up, some of them far from Modena and Emilia, and many of them sought a less labor-intensive, less time-consuming and less expensive way to produce a "balsamic" vinegar. Imitations abound, some of them no more than ordinary vinegar flavored and colored with caramel.

Cook's Illustrated magazine, which recently held a balsamic vinegar taste-off, notes that today balsamic vinegar is more popular in the United States than it is in Italy. So popular is it that the Baltimore-based company Pompeian, which has been importing, bottling and selling olive oil in this country for 90 years, began six months ago importing balsamic vinegar; it includes 35 major grocery chains among its customers.

The developing taste for balsamic vinegar has been "a slow progression" from knowledgeable chefs to the general public, said Chris Cherry, chef at Tabrizi's in Federal Hill. "I think what happened was a lot of people got away from heavier sauces with butter and cream." In the late '80s, he said, there was a trend to healthier dining, and chefs began using other flavorings. All sorts of vinegars found favor, including wine, raspberry and balsamic vinegars.

"The easiest way to add flavor is with something that's concentrated," Mr. Cherry said, noting acidic flavors "open up the palate."

"The best way I can describe it is a warmth, a brilliance," Mr. Zimmer said. He uses balsamic vinegar as a finishing ingredient in sauces, at the end of the sauteing process, tossed with roasted vegetables and in glazes for meat or game. "When you think something's kind of flat, a marinara sauce is not what you thought it should be," a -- of balsamic vinegar is just the thing, he said. "It offers depth with brightness. It kind of rounds things off."

"I use it on everything," said chef Michael Rork, of the Town Dock restaurant in St. Michaels. He discovered balsamic vinegar some years ago when he was working in a restaurant in Houston, and the Italian owner introduced him to it. Now he uses it in marinades, especially for grilled dishes, and keeps a spray bottle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar by the grill to spray on fish, meat and fowl while they cook.

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