After the very successful chicken with chickpeas finished with balsamic vinegar, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about one of my favourite ingredients. I don’t remember hearing much about it pre-Jamie (late 90s) – though I suspect Sophie Grigson mentioned it as it’s very her. I definitely can’t imagine a larder without it now though; it’s a permanent staple in my house and swiftly restocked if I look like running out. I keep two varieties in the pantry: an everyman cheap bottle to go in sauces and stews where it’s going to cook for a long time, and more expensive one that I use as a dressing or finishing touch to a dish. That’s the one pictured above and it’s about £11 a bottle. It sounds expensive – and it is – but if you break it down it lasts me about nine months and in relation to the pleasure that this sticky, smoky, sweet, sharp liquid brings it’s terrific value for money.
Vinegar is generally made from fermenting something; barley for malt vinegar, wine for wine vinegar and so on. Balsamic is made from reduced grape juice, hence giving it it’s distinct and sought-after rich fruitiness. It’s widely accepted that the best is from Modena, so look for that for your first indicator that it’s good. The second stage is the wording. The phrase Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is protected, meaning that’s the very best stuff and should be the one you’re looking for. Thirdly, look for the amount of aging. The longer it’s been aged, the more developed the flavour.
What to do with it? As a purist the very best I can do with it is to suspend a little in some excellent extra virgin olive oil, then dunk some fresh bread into the mix to soak up the rich blend. The oil will spread over the tongue, the sweetness will rush over it and be followed by the tangy edge that really makes it. Like good wine tasting, you pick up different fruited and herbal notes in different vinegars.
Beyond that, I think balsamic vinegar works well whenever you have something deep and sweet, often that’s a little spicy and been cooking a while. It’s natural friends are tomatoes and other mediterranean veg. Try sprinkling some over some griddled courgette, or paired with the classic insalata caprese. Or a whiz over a bolognese just before serving. It’s something that adds one final dimension or a touch of richness to a uniform dish.
It’s a superb condiment, and I certainly never leave it far from my pan. Here’s a few of my favourite things to do with it: