After writing last month about empanadas, specifically the pasties, I continued my research into the origin of foods as well as the requirements for calling foods certain names. 

I was in the supermarket shopping the other day and walked down the aisle with the oil and vinegar selection and looked at the variety that were available. This made me think, “why are there so many balsamic vinegars on the shelves?” I understand much of the differences between different brands and prices but I decided I needed to investigate a little further. I went to a specialty store for condiments and had a great conversation with the sales person about some of the variables involved in the sale of balsamic vinegar. At this store, a 16-ounce bottle of the vinegar ranged from three dollars to two hundred dollars. Like wine, the grapes pick up the flavor profile from the environment including: soil, sun exposure and rain. One of the great things these industries do is put a guarantee on their product called the Protected Designation of Origin, PDO, or DOP which stands for Designation of Origin. The specific initials and terminology are different in each country and sometimes tailored to each product.  This is a guarantee that the product is from a specific region and other official rules apply to how each product is prepared or handled. 

Certainly, I understood the difference between aged and non-aged vinegars, but there are many other variables to this bottled flavorful condiment. There are many differences between different brands and qualities of the many bottles of balsamic vinegar available. For an item to be called balsamic vinegar, according to the Italian DOP (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta”), the grapes must be grown from one of two types of grapes that are grown in only two places in Italy. The two grapes are the varieties of Lambrusco or Trebbiano, which are white grapes, usually late harvested. The two places that these grapes can be grown are Reggio Emilia and Modena. Additionally, the only ingredient allowed is grape “must.” Must is defined as crushed grapes, including the stems, skin and seeds. The inclusion of the stems, seeds and skin is what gives it the deep color that we think of when thinking about balsamic vinegar. The must is cooked over a flame and concentrated to half of the original amount. Then the must is left to ferment naturally for up to three weeks, and then aged and further concentrated for a minimum of 12 years. Within the 12 years, the concentrate is aged in a succession of smaller and smaller barrels, using different woods. The woods vary by producer, but might include chestnut, oak, cherry, mulberry or juniper. When bottling, the smallest cask is half emptied and added to some must from next size barrel. The barrels are never emptied, but refilled with must from the next largest cask. All of this is under the watchful eye of the DOP. There are designations that have less aging, but they would not have the DOP seal on the bottle. For example, a five-year aging process would be designated with the IGP stamp standing for “Indicazione Geografica Protetta,” or a protected geographical indication. This style of vinegar can cost around 40 dollars a pint. Who knew it took so much to attain a seal or label? 

The vinegars above should never be used in cooking, but added as a condiment or finishing flavoring. This differs from the process to make cheaper balsamic vinegar. This is made by adding some wine vinegar with food coloring masquerading it as Italian balsamic. Any label that says balsamic vinegar but doesn’t have the letters IGP or DOP listed is technically considered “condimento balsamico” or condiment grade balsamic. Check the ingredient list before you buy; cheap balsamics often have added sugar to mimic the sweetness of an aged balsamic. These vinegars might say “bottled in Modesto,” which means the grapes are grown elsewhere and only processed or bottled in the designated regions.

These laws also protect the names of wines and certain cheeses including Parmesan, Gorgonzola and Feta. Certain meats such as Prosciutto need a certification. Prosciutto comes from the same region as Parmesan, where the pigs are fed the whey byproduct of the Parmesan cheese making process. Another detailed need for naming an item is Roquefort cheese, which must be made from milk of a certain breed of sheep, and ripened in the caves near the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in France, where it picks up its unique flavor from a fungus, Penicillium roqueforti, that occurs naturally. 

This system is similar to the DOP and PDO mentioned above, but carries the AOC certification, appellation d'origine contrôlée, which is the French version. This process is similar to items that carry a Kosher, Halal or Organic Certification in that inspection happens throughout the whole processing of the product.