April 5, 2004
Wine tasting? That is so yesterday, haven't you heard? Balsamic vinegar tasting is all the rage!
On Saturday afternoon, Maxence and I attended such a tasting, organized by the Bastille Slow Food convivium. It was held at Sur Les Quais, a spice and oil store in the covered area of the Marché d'Aligre. I've always been very fond of the taste of balsamic vinegar, but the wildly varying prices of what you find in stores are confusing, so I was delighted for the chance to learn more.
Paul Vautrin, the store owner, started out by telling us about balsamic vinegar and its characteristics. It is produced from the must of very mature Trebbiano grapes and aged in a series of barrels of different sizes and woods. He explained how the producer transfers a fraction of the vinegar from the younger barrels into the older barrels every year, which is why the age of a bottle of vinegar is only an average, being a mix of older and younger vinegars. The types of wood the barrels are made in, the quality of the grapes, the initial concentration, and the producer's savoir-faire all come into play to make (or break) the quality of a balsamic vinegar.
Naturally, industrial companies started making balsamic vinegar too, aging it in steel tanks, cutting it with water and coloring it with brown sugar or caramel. In response, the original small producers have created a consortium and a D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, if you must know) to protect the century-old tradition : only vinegar produced in a small region around the town of Modena can claim to be the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, their products are made following strict rules and are bottled and boxed in a specific way.
The real thing is very pricy (50 euros for 10 cl), but the taste is so intense and concentrated that just a few drops are sufficient. Of course the scope is pretty wide between the real unique nectar and its crappy over-industrial version, so a good dealer should be able to recommend a producer who may not belong to the consortium but still follows the rules, hence producing a quality product at a somewhat lower price.
The actual tasting began with a small glass of saba, the must (unfermented juice) that is used to make balsamic vinegar. Incredibly sweet and sirupy, with a strong grape taste, saba can be diluted in water or wine to make an excellent drink, or poured on ice-cream or fruit for dessert.
After this little starter, we conducted a cool blind test : each participant got four little numbered glasses of vinegar, otherwise unmarked, and a grade sheet to take notes on the visual, olfactory and taste characteristics of each. That was a lot of fun, as we took on our most earnest air to sniff and sip and observe and gurgle. One of them was really really bad, with a terrible vinegar smell that unclogged your sinuses and a sour taste to match. Two were fruity to the smell and very pleasant to the taste, but not sour enough, and would have overpowered a savory dish. And the final one was just the right mix of sweet and sour, with a subtle but distinctive taste, fragrant and tart enough not to go unnoticed, without jumping at your throat. Much to our glee, this turned out to be the connoisseur's opinion.
We also got a taste of real traditional vinegar, which was indeed even better balanced than the blind test winner, and we tried white balsamic vinegar. Its taste was pretty similar to dark balsamic vinegar, but my tastebuds may have been past their peak of alertness by then.
We were then served some nibbles that the staff at Sur Les Quais had kindly prepared : a tomato and star anise cocktail, toasts of tapenade, quartered cherry tomatoes, slices of avocado, slivers of parmesan, strawberries and ice-cream, all prepared with the star of the show. My vote goes for the parmesan seasoned with a little balsamic vinegar, a simple and delicious amuse-bouche.
This was all very friendly, fun and instructive, and we bought a small bottle of balsamic vinegar (the one we liked best in the blind test) to take home. And a little coriander anchovy tapenade, because that was just irresistible.
Sur Les Quais
(Marché couvert d'Aligre)
01 43 43 21 09
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