A few months ago, Robert and I were watching the Travel Channel, and a special came on about balsamic vinegar. Do you know very much about balsamic vinegar? We didn’t. For example, did you know that true balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes? Trebbiano is one of the most widely planted grape varietals in the world. It has a high yield, but isn’t particularly well-suited to wine. It also has a high acidity, which does make it very important in Cognac production. Lambrusco is a grape and the name of a wine made principally from that grape. It’s one of the more ancient grape varietals still being planted today. Most Lambruscos are slightly sparkling and designed to be drunk young, like a Beaujolais Noveau.
What I am trying to say is, shortly after we establish our vineyard, you’ll find us attempting to make balsamic vinegar. Why not? It won’t be authentic, because to be authentic, a balsamic has to be legally described as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, and made in one of two special regions of Italy. It will be tasty, and at least better than commercial grade balsamic vinegar. I’m led to believe that commercialized balsamic vinegar is so much worse than Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale that the producers should be ashamed that they are trying to market it as balsamic vinegar at all. Buyer beware.
The Trebbiano and/or Lambrusco grapes are harvested and boiled down to create a must. The syrup produced, called mosto cotto in Italian (technical term), is fermented and then aged for a minimum of 12 years in seven barrels of successively smaller sizes. Some of this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The vinegar is stored in wooden casks (acacia, ash, cherry, chestnut, mulberry oak, or, if you’re kicking it old school, juniper). None of the product is withdrawn until the end of the minimum aging period of 12 years. At the end of the aging period, a small portion is drawn from the smallest cask and each cask is then topped up with the contents of the preceding (next larger) cask. Fresh syrup is added to the largest cask and in every subsequent year the drawing and topping up process is repeated in perpetuum. While 12 years is the minimum aging period, the flavor of the vinegar intensifies over the years, so you can also look for products aged for 18 or 25 years. The most expensive, aged vinegar can sell for upwards of $60 an ounce. Christmas is coming, Robert. Please also get me a honking chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, the traditional pairing. The good kind. We can’t be messing up our fabulous vinegar with bad cheese. See? You’re not the only one who can post things you want on the internet. Two can play at this game, my friend.
All of this information was floating around in the back of my mind when we stumbled upon an olive oil and vinegar taproom in Annapolis. I don’t think this store’s vinegar can be classified as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, and they aren’t marked as such, but they are imported from Modena and they have some interesting infused flavors. We tried a wide variety of vinegar and oils and left with a bottle of Cinnamon Pear aged for 12 years.
I’ve had balsamic vinegar drizzled over ice cream. I thought, “Self: why not in ice cream? Who’s stopping you?” I like making gelato better than ice cream. It’s better for you and a little easier. For your reading and viewing pleasure, I therefore bring you Brown Sugar Gelato with Cinnamon Pear Balsamic Vinegar Swirl, to be known simply as Modena. I made this gelato B.F. – before fire – so you and I can also enjoy some good memories of our former kitchen. And our beautiful orange KitchenAid®. Who knows, maybe it survived. KitchenAids are sturdy, yes?
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 vanilla bean pod
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup Cinnamon Pear Balsamic Vinegar
Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod. Bring 1 3/4 cups milk, 1/2 cup sugar, vanilla seeds, and a pinch of salt to a simmer in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Whisk together cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup milk in a small bowl until smooth, then whisk into simmering milk. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly, and boil 1 minute. Transfer mixture to a metal bowl, then set bowl in a larger bowl of ice and cold water and cool completely, stirring frequently.
Totally panic that your gelato looks grainy and strain it through a fine-mesh sieve. Three times. You’re not crazy.
Process the gelato in an ice cream maker in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions. Meanwhile, boil the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan until reduced to 2 tablespoons, about 6 minutes. Cool the syrup in pan. When the gelato is the consistency of soft serve, put it into the container you plan to store it in. Drizzle the reduced balsamic vinegar over the top and swirl it into the gelato using a knife. You do this by cutting through the gelato in diagonals. Other recipes will tell you that you can spoon the balsamic syrup into the ice cream maker and churn it 3 to 4 seconds longer to swirl. I am here to tell you that doing it that way messes up the swirl.
Cover and freeze until firm. We ate our gelato with a bottle of Turnbull Wine Cellars Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, which we bought on our honeymoon in 2008. It must have been a 2001 or 2004 vintage. This gelato is not a cloying sweet, so the dessert wine paired nicely.