Sour Grapes (Or At Least A Reduction Thereof)

Here’s something that may surprise you: you’ve probably never tasted balsamic vinegar.

Oh, sure, I bet you’ve bought and cooked with your fair share of stuff called balsamic vinegar. And probably it was even fancier, more expensive stuff than the Heinz bottle pictured at right. It may even have said “aceto balsamico di Modena” to impress you. But unless you’re prepared to make some really annoying arguments about how changes in pop-commercial usage redefine language at will (are all sad things really ironic just because Alanis Morisette thinks so?) then I’m afraid you’ve been slightly hoodwinked.

What you’ve put on your salad, glazed onto your chicken, and speckled into oil for dipping your bread in, is a condiment made of regular wine vinegar, food coloring, and caramel flavors. However, since said condiment successfully lobbied the various agencies and boards of the EU and the Italian government to be able to use the name “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena,” then that’s all that is all they are required to list under “ingredients.” It would be as if I got some court to rule that I could use “all natural lemonadee” as the name of a brand of yellow flavored kool-aid. Since that was technically the name of the sole ingredient, I could say I was selling “all natural lemonade” without running into any truth-in-advertising laws. But of course whether or not I was being a total jerk would still be open to debate.

Actually, the same is true for the question of balsamic vinegar: I still don’t know whether there’s any real harm being done by marketing the cheap imitation under the same name. The “good stuff,” which legally distinguishes itself by using the full name “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” (Modena’s traditional balsamic vinegar) certainly sounds like it should be substantially better. Made not from wine vinegar but instead directly from Trebbiano grapes (which are not typically a wine grape anyway), real balsamic vinegar undergoes fermentation by yeast, bacterial oxidation, and then an aging process wherein the vinegar is slowly rotated through a sequence of barrels over the course of not less than twelve years–or else it can’t legally be called “tradizionale.

But does all this extra work produce something markedly better than the $5 bottles of sour caramel you can buy at a Super Target? I’d love to say I could give you the answer. But the fact is, I’m not sure I’ve had real balsamic vinegar either. I did eat at an absurdly wonderful restaurant in Piano di Sorrento last summer, where I had a an appetizer of salmon and ricotta cheese in a reduction of “balsamic vinegar.” I’m tempted to guess that it was the real thing, as the restaurant owner seemed bent on offering me all of his most prized food items that weekend. And it did have a different, stronger taste than I expected, but that could all be a result of the reducing.

So I guess I can’t offer an opinion about the difference in quality, although perhaps the fact that I couldn’t really tell either way is an answer in and of itself. But one thing’s for sure: those things on sale in your grocery store are all pretty much the same mixture of sweet, sour, and food coloring, even if they say they’re “imported” or “aged,” so you might as well take whichever one comes with the best coupon for hefty garbage bags printed under the label. As for the fancy, stuff, if you’re still really curious you can order a bottle off Amazon and try it for yourself. But with even the cheapest, youngest bottle going at $100 for three and a half ounces, you might want to follow the BBC’s serving suggestion and add “just a few drops” to “ripe strawberries, slices of well-aged parmesan cheese or very good quality vanilla ice cream.” If you plan on pouring it on your salad instead, you might as well just throw some $20 bills in with your other mixed greens before you chow down.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

6 Responses to Sour Grapes (Or At Least A Reduction Thereof)

  1. Moominmamma says:

    I’m surprised that the powers that be in the E.U. and Italy let the phony product be labeled “di Modena”, as that is the defining characteristic that points to the highest quality balsamic vinegar. In every other instance of food labeling I’ve read about, they have been relentless in making sure that consumers are very clear about what is authentic and what is not.

    By the way, you might be able to get a price break from these people: http://www.modenaweb.com/carandini/htmluk/visi.htm if you ask them nicely in Italian. If they won’t sell, you could try this instead: http://www.shopbalsamicvinegar.com/Carandini-of-Modena-balsamic-vinegar.

  2. Paul West says:

    How sad that my occasional splurges have been for naught! Even more discouraging is a claim I just came across that caramel color contains 4-methylimidazole, a suspected carcinogen (http://www.grist.org/article/2011-02-16-aspartame-soda-caramel-BPA-diet-soda-kill-you)

    • Colin West says:

      Well I don’t know for sure that fancier-seeming bottles of inauthentic “balsamic vinegar” don’t taste better than the others… it’s just that any advantages they DO have doesn’t come from a centuries-old, barrel-based aging process, that’s all!

      As for 4-methylimidazole, I’m sorry to hear that we can’t make the color “brown” without accidentally causing cancer. But on the plus side, that’s the weirdest, most fatalistically funny URL I’ve ever seen…

  3. Seer says:

    If I may have a word about 4-methylimidazole…
    My domain is analytical chemistry and I’m working on that thing.
    4-MeI, as I call it, is not proven to be carcinogenic for humans. It is for mice.
    I haven’t worked on balsamic vinegar yet, so I can’t tell whether it is present or not. What I can tell is, though, 4-MeI is NOT present in all types of caramel colors, but only class III and IV (E150c and d), which involve ammonia in the fabrication process.
    So yes, one can actually have imidazole-free caramel color.

  4. Pingback: Et Tu, Wasabi? « WLOG blog

  5. Vinny Grette says:

    Food chemistry is just so COMPLICATED!

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