Italians have been savoring balsamic vinegar for centuries, however, the American palate has only been able to easily find and enjoy this dark, aromatic, syrup-like condiment for the past few decades. Interestingly, the history of balsamics area as rich and interesting as its taste.
In the 16th century, when the Estensi court moved to Modena, the first evidence of balsamic vinegar appear. Documents reveal it to have qualities that distinguish it from common vinegar and describe how to produce it, specifying that must from Trebbiano grapes must be left to mellow in an attic for several years.
In its early days, balsamic vinegar was considered very rare and valuable, and as such, was available only to the nobility and the artisans who made it—themselves aristocrats. It was believed to be a miracle cure for everything from a sore throat to labor pains. The name "balsamic,” from balm, is derived from its purported medicinal properties, including its use as a protection against the plague.
Made from local grapes and aged in local woods, for centuries balsamic vinegar was made privately on individual estates and farmsteads in Italy, for family use only. Barrels passed from one generation to the next, often aging for 50 to 200 years or more. This legacy created an unimaginably rich, molasses-thick syrup that was stored in locked cupboards and dispensed by the dropperful.
Fast forward a few centuries and balsamics have gone mainstream. Beginning in the late 1900s, the demand for fine foods from Europe based on Americans’ travels abroad, the increased focus on the northern Italian cuisine and the migration of great chefs to America, caused an increased demand that led to commercial production of balsamic vinegar. Today, balsamics are one of the most popular condiments in the U.S., and are used in various sauces, marinades, salad dressings, dips, desserts and more.
Unlike the sharp taste of vinegar, balsamic vinegar has a rich, sweet flavor, explains Fran Avery, co-owner of Crave, a food boutique in Lake Charles that sells extra virgin olive oil and balsamics on tap. "Our wide variety of aged balsamics are made in the centuries-old Solera tradition and aged for up to 18 years to produce a rich, multifaceted taste. We have flavored balsamics that are fused and infused with fresh fruit, peppers and even chocolate and espresso to create incredible taste sensations.”
Avery says the popularity surge of balsamics is not based on taste alone. "Balsamics are packed with nutrients and offer a tremendous range of health benefits. They are naturally low in calories and because they are so flavorful, a little goes a long way.” She advises using 1 tablespoon or less when adding balsamics to salad dressings, sauces or even soups. A 1-tablespoon serving of balsamic vinegar has approximately 14 calories. The same size serving also contains a negligible amount of fat and carbohydrates, including sugar. "You can keep your salads low-fat ,and low in calories, by dressing your vegetables with only balsamics. There are plenty of flavor-infused options, so you’ll get all the flavor variety you want.”
Other reported health benefits of balsamics include:
Antioxidant Properties: Free radicals damage cell membranes leading to premature aging, hardening of arterial walls and cancer. Antioxidants from balsamics destroy these free radicals.
Fights Cancer: The grapes from which balsamic vinegar is made have antioxidant properties. This antioxidant strengthens the immune system to fight cancer and other infectious diseases and inflammation. Balsamic vinegar also contains polyphenols which are anticancer agents.
Improves Heart Health: Balsamic vinegar is low in saturated fat and is believed to reduce cholesterol. Since it is also low in sodium, it enhances heart health and reduces high blood pressure.
Controls Diabetes: Balsamics are low on the glycemic index. Research reveals that consumption of at least 5 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar a day enhances insulin sensitivity. The greater the insulin sensitivity, the better the diabetes control.
Aids Digestion: The polyphenols in balsamic vinegar stimulate the activity of the pepsin enzyme in the body. Pepsin, a digestive enzyme, helps break proteins into amino acids. These polyphenols also assist the intestine in absorbing amino acids more efficiently, which enables the body to utilize it for cell building, repair and other body maintenance work.
For more information about balsamics, call Crave at (337) 421-00400, visit crave-foods.com, or stop by Crave at 2801 Ryan Street in Lake Charles to try a sample.