Drizzle is one of my favourite words. Not as in ‘rain,’ obviously. Drizzle in that sense conjures up interminable dreariness. It’s the worst kind of rain – damp, undecided, never-ending. It’s a dark, dour, dank Monday morning hiding under the duvet. A torrential downpour, a violent thunderstorm, at least has passion and power. Drizzle is just so lacklustre, depressing and half-hearted.
In chef-speak, however, ‘drizzle’ is sexy. It has an almost hypnotic quality. Somehow it’s the only word to perfectly capture a rich, glossy, gloopy flow. In the context of the kitchen it is sensuous, almost erotic.
You drizzle balsamic vinegar. You don’t pour one of the priciest and most highly prized Italian delicacies. Balsamic vinegar should be used sparingly. It should be slowly and lovingly drizzled.
The balsamic vinegar and olive oil salad dressing craze which hit this country a decade or so ago is a bit of red herring. Dousing our rocket and Parmesan salads with the darkly shiny mixture we cast off the iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island era with a cosmopolitan shrug.
The supermarket staple most of us were using, however, is not real balsamic vinegar. True artisan balsamic vinegar - Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia - has been made in Italy since the Middle Ages and will be marked with 'tradizionale' and the DOC label.
It’s made from a reduction of pressed sweet white Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes. The thick syrup or ‘must’ is then aged for at least 12 years in a series of wooden barrels. The casks are made of different woods - chestnut, acacia, cherry, oak, mulberry, juniper and ash - each adding to the character of the concoction. The flavour intensifies and becomes more complex over the years until you’re left with a rich, sweet, viscous, concentrated condiment.
The bottle will denote whether it’s a 12, 18 or 25-year vintage. Some have been aged for over 100 years - which is why they are so expensive. A 100ml bottle can set you back over a hundred euros. Thankfully, a little goes a long way.
The more affordable mass-produced 'aceto balsamico di Modena' is usually a blend of ‘must’ and wine vinegar coloured and flavoured with caramel. It’s not cask-aged so the flavours are not as strong. At the bottom of the scale you’ve got plain old ‘balsamic’ vinegar, which is simply wine vinegar with caramel and thickeners - fine for a salad dressing – but lacking the intensity of the real thing.
The Reggio Emilia vinegars can be differentiated by the colour of their labels: red for the 12-year vintage, silver for 18 years and gold for 25. The flavour becomes more tongue-tinglingly rich and sweet the older it gets. The Modena vinegars are colour-coded by cap (cream for ten years and gold for 25 years plus).
How best to savour it? Drink it. In Italy they sometimes sip the black velvety nectar as a digestif. And drizzle, of course. Over desserts, ripe strawberries, rich vanilla ice-cream, on chunks of tangy Parmasen or tuna or beef carpaccio.