To be intrigued with balsamic vinegar as am I is to understand some of the history of not just Italy, but of Europe, because balsamic vinegar was the stuff of royalty. King Henry II of Franconia passed through Piacenza once, in around 1046, and was given a barrel of balsamic vinegar. We know this from written records of his activities. That’s the 11th century, for heaven’s sake. Not many foodstuffs I can think of have a pedigree of that magnitude. A long time ago vinegar was something people discovered would occur naturally, without any coaxing, and that it would preserve a surfeit of various foods that would otherwise spoil and be wasted.
Preservation was then as now, if you think about it, of cardinal importance. The acidity of vinegar, the sweet-and-sourness, the color and fragrance of it inured balsamic vinegar to people of the day, and it became a much-desired staple of life. It began with the must – the detritus left behind after grapes were crushed for winemaking – as well as the particular locale of these grapes – the soil where they were cultivated and the climate of this particular part of the Apennine Mountains of Emilia Romagna – and this must was cooked, probably in huge vats unless it was made in homes from private and much smaller batches of grape must. Figs, too, were crushed, and fig must was also turned into wine and vinegar. Vinegar can be made from anything that contains some form of sugar. Even honey can be made into vinegar. And before the liquid from the cooked must became vinegar, it was called SAPA, or SABA, or VINCOTTO, and this thickish, black substance was used as a sweetener for all sorts of baked goods, and cobblers and stews and sauces, principally because sugar was beyond the reach of most people. But once it began to acidify, and once people learned that the longer you allowed it to sit, and to evaporate, and to take on the fragrant esters of the various-wooden kegs and casks and barrels in which it would reside, the thicker, the more fragrant, the more complex and powerful it became. And its power became its calling card, its raison d’etre, because balsamic vinegar became famous for its medicinal affect. It healed, it cured, it gave well-being and health. It acquired its reputation back then as a panacea against all the vagaries of the cruel and merciless life of the Dark Ages and the Medieval Era. Indeed, HEALTH is its very name. Balsamo! The old story is that at the depths of the despair, ruin and terror of the Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1348 as it swept through Europe, there were five bandits who holed up in a basement of a building that housed casks of balsamic vinegar, and the vinegar saved them from certain death.
Well, New Yorkers were a little late to the balsamic vinegar party – like, a thousand years give or take a few centuries. As far as I can measure, and I’m pretty good at it, I can remember when 26-year old me (1977, the autumn of the year, I clearly recall) was told about this sweet/sour vinegar sold in shops in Modena, one of the greatest cities in Italy, certainly in Emilia Romagna, along with her sister cities Bologna and Parma and Ferrara, and for your information, Ferrara, too, looms large in the history and provenance of balsamic vinegar. Then I was working for a New York City specialty food retailer, and it was one of our Soho customers, a woman named Molly who would often cajole my boss to take me with him on his travels: “Why don’t you take Steven to Milano?” Or, “Why don’t you take Steven to Paris?” She knew how important it would be to an unseasoned yet precocious Midwesterner like me to travel a bit, speaking of looming large.
In those days Soho was populated mostly by painters and sculptors, and art biz folk, almost all of whom spent considerable time in Europe, mostly Italy and France. Things “Italian” and things “French” had always had a great deal of traction for a certain measure of Americans, but up until 1977, it did not include stuff sold at retail in American food shops and supermarkets, not even in New York City, the place where all things worthwhile make their debut. Some cookery books credit Marcella Hazan with being the first to discover balsamic vinegar. Now, please understand — Marcella was adored by scads of serious cooks including my wife Michelle, who was with me in those halcyon days of New Yorkers discovering the joy of Italian and French foods. Michelle’s repertory of wonderful meals still to this very week includes several Marcella Hazan recipes that I cannot imagine life without. Marcella was a goddess then and now, not just to us, but to all who consider ourselves students of Italian food.
But when it comes to helping to bring balsamic vinegar to New York, I think my record speaks for itself. My employer and I prevailed upon his father, a highly respected importer of Italian tomatoes and pasta. We asked him to put a couple of pallets of Monari Federzoni brand “Aceto Balsamico di Modena,” as it is properly referred to, on his next container of pasta and canned tomatoes heading to the states, and he did. A pallet, then as now, is a wooden platform upon which 60 cases of 12 units of whatever can be stacked, wrapped, picked up and deposited aboard a sea-faring container ship.
When it arrived and cleared customs, we got in my old Buick and drove over to a warehouse in Tribeca. This was before “Tribeca” even became the awkward word coined for this neighborhood of brick and iron buildings and limestone-block sidewalks, warehouse-after-warehouse owned by the old New York families whose livelihood was butter and eggs, cheese, and imported staples such as pasta and tomatoes. We hauled a few cases out to the street and shoved them into the Buick’s trunk, and then sped back to the store, a few blocks above Canal Street, where we proceeded to immediately crack open a bottle and raise it headlong to our lips.
It galvanized us, and I felt I had found a career. As if my already vibrant cheese counter wasn’t enough. But that’s another story.
From then on for as long as I lasted at that New York City specialty food retailer, every person that came into the shop was regaled with the joys of balsamic vinegar. It made quite a sensation throughout the rest of the ’70’s and really began to have an impact in the ’80’s and ’90’s. These days balsamic vinegar is as much of a staple as, well, ketchup.
And seeing as how I am still hopelessly addicted to the stuff, after 34 years, as is my wife and everybody I know, it serves to reason that Fairway, all eight of us, offers not just the finest Aceto Balsamico Di Modena made, but we offer it at prices that embarrass everybody else in this business. We import the best of it in barrels, and we bottle it ourselves. Fairway began to stock balsamic vinegar literally the week I arrived here back in the winter of 1980. I suppose it was one of the very first things I did at Fairway in addition to wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap to work everyday at a time when nobody was wearing baseball caps.
Which of our Fairway balsamic vinegars do you enjoy the most? What do you like about it?