The Food Almanac: Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Staff Writer
It's Balsamic Vinegar Day!
Cristiano Carli

A specialty of the region around Modena in Italy, balsamic vinegar is aged in wood barrels, but there's a bit more to it than that.

Annals Of Relief
CARE (which stands for Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere) was founded today in 1945. It was an emergency effort to help desperate people in the ruins of Europe after World War II, shipping in food and medical supplies. It worked so well that the effort continues to this day. "CARE Package" has come to mean much more than life-saving supplies. One now hears packages of distinctive food items from home called by that name. A classic New Orleans CARE package (not from the CARE organization, of course) would include Union coffee with chicory, a jar of Zatarain's Creole mustard, a canister of Tony Chachere's seasoning, a bottle of gumbo file, a bottle of Crystal hot sauce, a pound of Camellia red beans, and other comestibles not easily found outside of South Louisiana.

Today's Flavor
Today is Balsamic Vinegar Day. A specialty of the region around Modena in Italy, balsamic vinegar is aged in wood barrels. . . but there's a bit more to it than that. The vinegar is made directly from grape juice, not stopping at the wine stage. It's then aged long enough to take on a dark brown color. In its best forms, the vinegar stays in the barrels for decades. Century-old balsamic vinegar is not unheard of. It's intensely flavored and it's very expensive.

Why would anyone hold onto vinegar for a hundred years? The clue is in the word "balsamic," a reference to medicinal qualities which, it was once believed, the stuff possessed. (Although it's said that the first balsamic vinegar was made by mistake, when a barrel of grape juice was forgotten for decades in a cave.) Balsamic vinegar first became popular in New Orleans in the early 1980s, when the first wave of innovative chefs swept through our town opening restaurants.

Most balsamic vinegar is not aged very long, and sometimes gets its color from additives. Even these are better than the cheap vinegars that used to dominate the scene even in the great places. You can spot the really good stuff because it's as thick as syrup, is not especially acidic, and adds flavor with only a few drops. It's a delicious, mouth-watering elixir. Here's a website with an interesting history of balsamic vinegar.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Vinegar Bend, Alabama is in the panhandle, forty-nine miles north of Mobile. It's a small unincorporated community named for a bend in the Mobile and Ohio Railroad (now a part of the Illinois Central). The town was a stop on the railroad in the old days. Wilmer Mizell, a major league baseball player and later a Congressman, was born nearby and took "Vinegar Bend" as his nickname. Not many restaurants in this part of the state; the nearest is The White Oak in Leakesville, eighteen miles away. Deft Dining Rule #892: If you're offered a balsamic vinaigrette in a restaurant, ask which balsamic vinegar they use. If you don't get an answer, they didn't really make it themselves.

Edible Dictionary
cider vinegar, n.--A light brown vinegar made from juice squeezed from apples. A bacteria converts sugars or alcohol into acetic acid, the essential element of vinegar. Cider vinegar is popular because it has a mellow flavor, although it's an aftertaste behind the acidity. In some cider vinegars, this can be quite strong, more so than white or wine vinegars. That's an advantage in certain uses, notably cole slaw.

Food Records
Today in 2007, truffle hunter Cristiano Savini was scouting about in the woods neat Palaia (twenty-five miles from Pisa) when his dog Rocco suddenly became very excited. With good reason. When Cristiano dug up the spot where the dog began the excavation, he found a white truffle weighing 3.3 pounds--a world's record, topping a 2.86-pound Croatian truffle found in 1999. The truffle was auctioned for $330,000 for charity. The buyer was Stanley Ho, a casino owner in Macau.

Food Namesakes
Eddie Rabbitt, pop-country singer, was born today in 1941. . . Sir Charles Lamb was born today in 1849. He was a mathematician who was heavily involved in physics theory, particularly as it involved waves. From that his work instructed us on tides and earthquake propagation.

Words To Run A Restaurant By
"I love to change the carpets in my restaurants. It means that a lot of customers have worn the old ones out."--Ella Brennan.

Words To Eat Chocolate By
"The most expensive bottle of wine is way out of most people's reach; the most expensive bottle of balsamic vinegar costs more than a thousand dollars. But the most expensive chocolate bar costs only nine dollars."--Clay Gordon, publisher of Chocophile.com.