Balsamico di Reggia Emilia.
Balsamico di Reggia Emilia.

Ryan Tatsumoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

When I look in the mirror every morning and spot another white hair in my goatee, or notice that the hair atop my head looks a bit thinner, or when I wake up with body aches from unknown causes, I always chalk it up to the unwanted consequences of aging. Or, when my SUV starts making noises that do not sound at all like the purr of a brand new engine, or when the desktop or laptop slows to a crawl and needs to be rebooted several times a day. Even inanimate aging seems inevitable.

There are times, however, when aging isn’t just welcomed, but actually desired . . . like when milk from totally grass-fed vacche rosse, or red cows, from the Reggio-Emilia region in northern Italy, is allowed to curdle naturally and then drained, salted and aged for 30 to 40 months. That process produces not just the famed Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, but also the Vacche Rosse Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese of the gods. Buttery, rich and salty with crunchy bits of crystalized amino acids and loads of umami, it is meant to be savored either as is or with a few precious drops of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, or true balsamic vinegar.

The True Balsamic Vinegar

After the juices of the Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes have cooked slowly for 12 to 24 hours until reduced by half, they are barreled and fermented with natural yeasts for up to three weeks. They are then aged in wooden barrels that allow acetic acid bacteria to convert the alcohol to acetic acid, producing a rudimentary form of balsamic vinegar. As the aging progresses, several different wooden barrels are employed, including oak, mulberry, ash, chestnut, cherry, juniper and acacia. Aging results in evaporation, so the barrels get progressively smaller. Once the vinegar has aged for 12 years, it is bottled as affinato (fine), vecchio (old) for vinegar 15 to 20 years old and extra vecchio for vinegar 20 to 25 years old.

The barrels are never fully drained — just topped off with a newer volume of younger vinegar. Needless to say, these aren’t the “balsamic” vinegars you find at your local supermarket, unless your neighborhood happens to be Beverly Hills. A small 100ml (just over 3 ounces) bottle costs between $75 and $200, depending on the age of the vinegar. Clearly, these vinegars are not meant for vinaigrettes. The precious drops are either drizzled on Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, gourmet ice creams or vine-ripened fruits.

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Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”

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