Tag Archives: balsamic vinegar

The Paradox of Food Production

I’ve been twirling this thought through my head ever since starting Gina Mallet’s book Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World:

  • - When a food product tastes good, the “Good Taste” creates a measure of “Demand”.
  • - The greater the demand, the greater odds of industrialization of the initial food product.
  • - The larger the scale of industrial production, the larger the scale of industrial distribution.
  • - The larger the scale of industrial distribution of the food product, the better the odds of someone altering production techniques to either 1) Enable the product to be cheaper to make…and/or…2)Make the product safe for everyone (and when I say everyone, I mean everyone…from youth to the elderly; from the healthy to those who are susceptible to various bacteria that a healthy person can process with no issue)
  • - The changes in production techniques alter the taste of the initial product, often to the detriment of the initial product.

My point here is that the success of a food product will often lead to its ruin. That may sound a bit alarmist at first until you consider the following products (some of which were talked about by Ms. Mallet):

  • Ground Beef: The production of ground beef have been massively documented. Meat from cows that eat a unnatural diet have a taste which is quite different from a cow that eats hay, grass and other naturally occurring flora and fauna.
  • Pork: Pigs have been bred to have less fat, which makes for a dry tasting pork, and a less tasty product. Pork fat tastes good…sorry.
  • Milk: Raw milk vs. Pasteurized milk. Most of us haven’t had true milk. Do a side by side comparison of a glass of Raw milk, vs. a glass of Pasteurized. You’ll be surprised at what you’ve been missing.
  • Eggs: Oi, what the egg has gone through over the past 30 years. Health issues aside…There’s no comparison between Farm fresh eggs and *shudder* pasteurized and irradiated eggs.
  • Cheese: Place a raw milk cheese aside from the bright orange supermarket chunk o’ cheeze. Taste test. Try to prevent yourself from taking torches and pitchforks to industrial cheesemakers.

…and I could go on.

Have there been health benefits to these changes? Most assuredly in some cases (milk), and the jury is still out on others (cheese, eggs). The health benefits (supposed health benefits in some cases) aren’t my point (I’ll certainly discuss these at some future date).

It’s impossible to take a stance against efficiently producing food for millions of people. Feeding one’s citizenry is a difficult proposition, and yet it’s absolutely essential for the success of any country.

It’s the marketing of these foods which makes me uncomfortable. From the fake balsamic vinegars to the Angus Beef title, a lot of these foods are given titles and names that are designed to take advantage of both the desire of the consumer to have better tasting food, as well as their ignorance of what to expect. In short, a fair amount of food producers take advantage of this food paradox for monetary gain. Granted, this isn’t all that surprising, but it does lead to greater cynicism and skepticism of major food producers once you realize what they are doing.

This cynicism is a good thing. The direct result of this cynicism and skepticism are trends new (“slow” food) and old (organics and artisinal foods). Thus the paradox results in the following: Proponents of the initial product go off and try to recreate that initial taste.

This food paradox is a powerful mover of taste, because it relies on how we perceive things should taste. From the marketer tell us that grated industrial parmesan cheese is equal in taste to Parmigiano Reggiano; to those who tell the marketer that he doesn’t know what they’re talking about, the paradox keeps the idea of “taste” firmly in the public discourse. And if taste is being talked about (either around the water cooler, on blogs, or in books and magazines), the level of quality in foods will always play a part in food production regardless if a product is made industrially or by an local artisan or farmer.

Tasting Notes: 18 yr old Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Acetaia Bellei)

Official Description: This description of this balsamic vinegar comes from the Acetaia Bellei site:

The “Bellei” Balsamic Vinegar of Modena with an orange label distinguishes the vinegar that has undergone the longest period of aging in small wooden casks.

Its typical flavour is very pleasant and harmonious, and the sweet and sour taste is particularly intense.

This matured vinegar is recommended for ice cream, for dressing strawberries and in combination with Parmesan Cheese.

My own notes:

Look: Syrupy, with a deep brownish hue with a bit of red on its rim. The syrup that sticks to the side of the glass…and a lot of it sticks…retains a bit of an orange coloration as well.

Smell: Pungent, vinegar crisp with an aroma of an open box of raisins.

Taste: Tart at first, smacking the taste buds around like one would expect a vinegar to do, but then suddenly smoothens out, like a paved road after driving on a cobblestone street. Then it’s sweet, almost cherry like, with the earthy taste of raisins beneath the initial sharpness.

What the heck is Balsamic Vinegar?

Twenty years ago, only a handful of people in the States knew of the wonders of balsamic vinegar. Nowadays, you walk into your market of choice, and there it sits, next to the red wine and cider vinegars.

Just what the heck happened during the past 20 years that made balsamic de rigeur?

Truthfully? Greedy vinegar makers are what happened. Because what is in your supermarket is most likely not traditional balsamic vinegar. Rather, it’s nothing more than ordinary wine vinegar with coloring and added sugar. Either that, or it’s unaged (most likely) grape juice vinegar, grape juice vinegar aged for 6 months to a year in stainless steel tanks (also likely), or grape juice vinegar aged for 2 to 12 years in wooden barrels (less likely).

In short, the 3 dollar to 18 dollar bottles of balsamic vinegar sold in American stores are sold at higher prices than typical vinegar, because most people think they are buying something of “gourmet status” and thus of higher quality. The truth is that a fair majority of the stuff is no better nor worse than the 2 dollar bottle of red wine vinegar.

That’s not to say that those types of vinegar taste bad. Many of them are quite palatable. But being palatable is not the same as having the taste of traditional balsamic vinegar.

So just what is traditional balsamic vinegar? It’s a condiement that was perfected in Modena Italy (in the Emilia-Romagna region, which is why I’m talking about it).It is made from the ‘must’ (unfermented juice) of mainly the Trebbiano grape. This juice is boiled down, and the reduction remaining is added with a ‘mother’ vinegar. Much in the same way sourdough bread has a lineage to previous loaves , a vinegar has lineage to previous batches of vinegar, hence the use of this ‘Mother’. A ‘Mother’ is a sludge-like substance that forms on the surface of vinegar, and is composed of various yeast and bacteria [especially mycoderma aceti] that cause fermentation in wine and cider, and turns the syrup it into acetic acid, also known as…wait for it… vinegar.

The new vinegar compound is then aged in wooden barrels,with that barrel being changed nearly every year (depending upon the companies secret vinegar making process). The wood used for the barrels is also important, as it imparts it’s taste much in the same way that it does in wine. The woods most often used for balsamic include chestnut, ash tree, cherry, mulberry, juniper and oak.

Then the vinegar is aged for years, at least 12 of them. Anything less than that is not “officially” traditonal balsamic vinegar. The longer the vinegar ages, the more it changes. Every year in a barrel, the more moisture is removed from the vinegar. Thus, older vinegars are thicker, viscous in nature, and often syrupy. This also leaves the vinegar much sweeter than other vinegars. Where regular supermarket vinegars would never lend themselves to drinking, older balsamics are sweet enough that they are often tasted by themselves.

The end result of traditional balsamic is a dark brown, sweetened syrup with a slight vinegary kick to it. It is said that it goes well on gelato and strawberries. It is also vairly expensive here in the States. I purchased an 18 year old bottle of balsamic that ran me $40. I was eyeing a 22 year old bottle that cost 3 times as much. Which is one of the reasons why you don’t see traditional balsamic in the surpermarket. Very rarely are average shoppers going to pay 40 bucks for a condiment.

So yeah, you can buy your supermaket brand if you wish. But unless it’s…

  • …made with a must
  • …aged in wooden barrels for over 12 years
  • …and thicker and sweeter than most other vinegars

…chances are good that you aren’t having the real thing.