Miriam bought me some really good balsamic vinegar and I decided that I would use it for my Fourth of July dinner. Actually, she bought me two bottles, some Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia (the really good stuff—“do not use this in a salad dressing!”) and some BalsaMela, a Balsamic apple vinegar. I decided to use the second vinegar to dress my bean medley.
Miriam went to Italy last month on a business trip, she is a futurist specializing in food systems and food sustainability. While there, her conference group visited the Acetaria San Giacomo. The owner, Andrea Bezzecchi, took them on a tour.
An acetaia refers to the attic “vinegar room” where the vinegar is made. The extreme temperature changes—between day and night and summer and winter—are crucial to the evaporation and bacterial growth that is the heart of the process of making this singular vinegar. A second important factor is the varying woods employed in a “battery,” a set of 5-12 graduated casks. Softer woods are use for the larger casks to hasten evaporation and hard woods—like cherry and oak—are use for the smaller casks, slow the loss of liquids and to impart their fragrances and flavors.
In the spring of each year, a small amount is drawn from the smallest cask—for sale or use. The cask is topped off from the next cask in the battery, continuing up the line until the largest in the set. This cask is topped off with fresh must from the year’s wine press. After 25 years of aging and evaporation, 100 kilograms of grape musk is turned into a mere two litters of balsamic vinegar.
Andrea is a man seriously into vinegar. This is a picture of his sideboard with his collection of different types of vinegars. Andreas’ traditional balsamic vinegars take, at least, 12 years to make, so to you it may be a condiment, but to him it is a multi-generational calling.
During the tour, Miriam took a picture of the acetaia itsself—a loft space where the “batteries” of vinegar are aged and evaporated over years. The good stuff travels through at least five barrels, acquiring the flavors of different woods, until decanted from the smallest barrels. The older barrels along the back wall are 80 years old, and some of the newer-looking barrels are actually built around the dissolving remnants of even older barrels. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale takes so long to make that it is not really profitable (even at $150-200 a bottle). Apple cider vinegar aged for a few years in a resting balsalmic barrel is San Giacomo’s “commercial” brand BalsaMela, that keeps the Acetaia in business.
This is not to say that his “commercial brand” is low quality or a knock-off. It carries some of the woody flavor of its older brothers too. It is thick and rich and far better than most of the products found on American supermarket shelves labeled as Balsamic Vinegar de Modeno, almost all of which take many short-cuts to a pale imitation of the traditional stuff. The more affordable BalsaMela is available on-line from Amazon for $32 + shipping. If you are rich, or feeling like splurging, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia is also available for $189.99.
Karl’s Green and Wax Bean Medley
2 Tbs. olive oil, separate uses
½ Tbs. BalsaMela vinegar
1 tsp. tarragon, dry and crumbled
¼ tsp. cracked black pepper
⅛ tsp. celery seeds
pinch cayenne pepper
½ lb. Blue Lake green beans, cut into 1½ inch pieces
½ lb. wax beans, cut into 1½ inch pieces
½ sweet onion, cut into half moons, pole to pole
pinch Kosher salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1. Mix one tablespoon of olive oil with the vinegar, tarragon, black pepper, celery seeds, and cayenne pepper in a small lidded jar.
2. Shake the jar to blend and let the dressing meld for at least 15 minutes.
Tip: Shake several times to re-blend the mix.
3. Steam the beans lightly, until crisp tender.
Tip: Dunk the beans in cool water, to stop them from overcooking.
4. In a medium pan, over medium heat, sauté the onions with the salt and the remaining olive oil, until well caramelized, about 10-15 minutes.
5. Add the garlic and continue sautéing until fragrant, about one minute.
6. Add the green beans and cook for two minutes, tossing the contents of the pot, to reheat the beans.
7. Add the dressing and too to coat.
8. Transfer the beans to a serving bowl.
Tip: Be sure to use a spatula to make sure that all of the dressing in the pot ends up on the beans.