Even though balsamic vinegar is a specialty of northern Italy, I could not get away from it on my trip to Sardinia this summer. Everywhere, balsamic.
In the past, when you ordered a green salad in Italy, the waiter brought olive oil and wine vinegar, and you dressed the salad yourself. Now you get thin, third-rate balsamic. I had to beg for fresh lemon or wine vinegar.
The omnipresent balsamic became a running joke on my vacation, with the punchline provided by United Airlines on the flight home. The dinner selection: balsamic chicken with risotto and balsamic sauce, and Iceberg lettuce with balsamic vinaigrette. Basta with the faux balsamic.
Traditional aceto balsamico—the good stuff—makes an exquisite condiment for Parmigiano-Reggiano. A few drops of the syrupy elixir complement this crystalline and concentrated cheese. With a big red wine, you have a perfect cheese course.
Another seasonal thought: fresh figs with a dribble of balsamic and a mellow blue cheese like Point Reyes Bay Blue, Fourme d’Ambert or Cashel Blue. Aged Goudas, the ones that smell like butterscotch, also appeal to me as a partner for aceto balsamico and figs. With a blue or caramelly Gouda, open a sweet wine—an Italian vin santo, Rainwater Madeira or oloroso sherry.
Fine aceto balsamico is costly but you don’t need much—some people serve it with an eye dropper—and it lasts. Look for the words aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena on the label. Market Hall Foods, the mail-order arm of the East Bay’s Pasta Shop, offers a couple of selections online and is a reliable source for the best from Italy.
But stop the presses. I just learned about—and sampled—a lovely balsamic vinegar made in Monticello, New Mexico. No joke. Steve and Jane Darland, urban refugees, planted the traditional Italian grape varieties on their mile-high property near the Continental Divide in the mid-1990s. They purchased all the proper aging barrels from Modena’s best barrel maker, consulted with experts like Berkeley chef Paul Bertolli, and released their first product in 2009. It is sublime: thick, concentrated, mellow, the essence of raisins.
At $150 for a 4.5-ounce bottle, Aceto Balsamico di Monticello seems an extravagance, although less so when you figure the cost per serving. People pay as much for a white truffle or a bottle of fine Burgundy, but the balsamic lasts more than one evening. When your ship comes in, consider investing in a tiny bottle (available at Boulette's Larder in SF and The Shed in Healdsburg or from www.organicbalsamic.com) and enjoying the precious droplets on a grilled steak, panna cotta or craggy nuggets of Parmigiano-Reggiano.