Balsamic vinegar - the real, traditionally made stuff - is a sweet treat, and quite palatable on its own, but you'd never know that by sampling what passes for balsamic vinegar in most food shops and restaurants.
That's why two local men decided to not only launch an import company to bring real balsamic vinegar to Western Canada, they also spend a great deal of their time educating people on how to recognize and use these traditionally made products.
Vittorio Castellini and Robert Mesiano started Agrodolce Importers in March last year, headquartered in White Rock, with the goal of offering a traditionally made Italian balsamic vinegar at a reasonable price.
"The traditional aging of balsamic vinegar is done in a series of open barrels, so it makes it denser because it evaporates and it also acquires flavours from the woods," explained Castellini.
The one and only ingredient used is grapes - and only certain varietals - that are slow-cooked over a very low heat for days and then put into barrels. That's the biggest giveaway when looking at the label of a bottle, he said. If it has caramel colouring or sugar, it has been industrially produced and additives are used to mimic the taste and texture of the traditional versions.
A quick taste comparison shows the mimicry isn't usually very successful, but few people even know they're being had with a cheaply made substitute.
"There's a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation and even outright fraud," said Castellini.
Balsamic vinegar is a protected product in the European Union, meaning there are legal guidelines as to what can and cannot be labelled and sold as traditional balsamic vinegar, what it must look like, its acidity level, colour, and even density, among other attributes. To carry the EU seal, balsamic vinegar also cannot say how many years it has been aged or in what way, even though these factors are crucial to the traditional production process.
That's because the rules and regulations were put into place only a few decades ago, at a time when there were already a number of large industrial producers on the scene, so the rules reflected that, according to Castellini.
However, the traditionally made balsamic vinegar, aged for 25 years, is also certified by a panel to ensure the very best stuff really is as good as the best balsamic vinegars produced throughout the past thousand years or so.
Because it is so time-consuming and expensive to produce, the top-notch certified balsamic vinegar is also the most expensive. One tiny sip reveals why dedicated foodies are willing to shell out some $280 or more for a 100-ml. bottle.
And traditional balsamic vinegar is only produced in two small provinces of Italy, in Modena and Reggio Emilia. Producers have tried to make it beyond this region, but it can't be done.
"I ask people if they want to sample some traditional balsamic vinegar and they say, 'No, I have some at home,' and I know they don't," said Castellini.
He and Mesiano had a booth at the Eat Vancouver food expo last summer and offered visitors a taste of different kinds of traditionally made balsamic vinegar. The real thing has a complex flavour, both sweet and bitter, and is used sparingly as a condiment.
"There are only 10,000 of these bottles made a year," he noted. "If people want to spend that kind of money, it's certified - you don't have to take my word."
Sadly, due to the EU rules, you can't know how long any bottle of balsamic vinegar has been aged by reading the label.
The three most popular items in the line imported by Castellini and Mesiano, the balsamic vinegar is made in the traditional way, but not for the full 25 years.
"We're not allowed to put an age on these. These are four, eight and 10 years old, and you just have to take our word for it," said Castellini, referring to the Acetaia Dodi line of Il Buon Condimento, Il Capriccio di Valeria and Famiglia Dodi, respectively.
The maker, Ricardo Dodi, is the biggest producer of traditionally made balsamic vinegar and also sits on the panel that certifies the 25-year-old batches.
One of the brochures available with these products gives suggestions for how to use the products, such as using the least aged version in salad dressing, although the medium-aged version is better used in Chicken Cacciatore or Petti di Pollo al Balsamico, where it added after the cooking in order to preserve its delicate flavours.
Famiglia Dodi, aged 10 years, can be used on fresh fruit, gelato or drizzled on fine cheeses.