The Scarlet Letter of Italy
Few letters may be as important as the letter A – the first letter of the alphabet, the first vowel, the alpha of omega, the grade we all strive for. Whether emblazoned in literary history as Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter or branded as Apple, Apollo or Abercrombie, the letter A stands out as something special. The evocative nature of the letter A in Italy’s gastro-history is most obvious and apparent when family cooks and chefs speak of aceto (vinegar), an incredible condiment that elevates the flavor of everything it touches.
As an ancient cooking ingredient, vinegar was appreciated for its ability to season and preserve food but nowadays it is most often underrated and misunderstood. There are people who consider vinegar simply ‘wine gone bad,’ buying generic off the shelf brands. However, an artisan produced wine vinegar is a culinary asset with a palate personality that can add a touch of originality to many dishes. Like wine, a proper wine vinegar reflects the terroir of the region. The best wine vinegar is made from grapes that are used to make wine. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling are all used for vinegar production. Seasonal fruits also produce uniquely flavored vinegars.
Producing a quality wine vinegar requires respect, tenacity, talent and a strong passion for the product. Competing with mass-produced industrialized vinegar for the hearts and minds of consumers, small artisan producers often make an artisanal vinegar using barrels made from wood produced on their own land. Barrels line the walls of acetaia*(ah-chay-tie-ah) where aging takes place over 12, 18 or 24 months. Using a traditional slow percolating process, without mechanical intervention, artisan vinegars develop a depth of flavor reminiscent of a fine wine. An aromatic and flavorful vinegar is ideal for making better than bottled salad dressings, marinades for grilled meats and vegetables, deglazing roasts and adding a bright tone to cheese, cured meats or stews. Balsamic vinegars are deeply flavored and well worth seeking.
* acetaia ( a vinegar house) is a place where the vinegar is made and aged