July 10, 2024
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Authentic Traditional Balsamic Vinegar—A Kosher First

As I wrote in an earlier article, there are two types of balsamic vinegar. Every kosher balsamic vinegar currently on the market is IGP, which is about 80% wine vinegar, plus 20% grape must, caramel color, gums, and matured for about two months. The product can be made anywhere, so long as it is bottled in Modena, and the quality varies. Used most commonly in salad dressings and reduced to a glaze, it is generally considered an inferior product to the famous Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO) that is sold in small bottles at high-end shops and served at five-star restaurants in the non-kosher world.

Prized by chefs and carrying a premium price, traditional balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. There are no added ingredients like you would find in IGP balsamic vinegars (caramel coloring, cheaper wine vinegar). The resulting thick syrup is then aged in a series of progressively smaller barrels made from woods (chestnut, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash and juniper) that impart flavor to the vinegar similar to aging wine. The result is a rich, glossy, deep brown, viscous syrup with a complex flavor balancing sweet and sour. It is used very sparingly as a condiment on fruits, cheese and meat; never in a reduction or salad dressing.

Kosher gastronomes seeking authentic balsamic vinegar have been out of luck since it has never been available kosher. However, while I have not been able to sample the product (it was not at Kosherfest), one such vinegar is making its kosher debut and is the only PDO product with any kosher certification on the market.

Actor Fabio Massimo Bonini, who hails from Modena, Italy, turned his passion for traditional balsamic vinegar, which he describes as part of his culture, into an artisanal food business. He, along with his wife Betty, created Cascina di Balsamico Bonini, a modern facility to produce authentic Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (PDO), and also a bed and breakfast where visitors can enjoy local hospitality and tour the facility. Traditional balsamic vinegar is regulated through a consortium of producers. Unlike factory produced IGP balsamic, its only ingredient is 100% grape must, and it must be aged in wood barrels for at least 12 years. During the aging process, the must naturally evaporates and thickens, and it is moved to progressively smaller barrels. Bonini works in small batches in the traditional artisan method.

Their 12-year aged traditional balsamic vinegar PDO is available with kosher certification under the International Kosher Council (IKC), and is the first (and so far only) PDO vinegar to be kosher approved. They also have products that are aged longer, such as 18, 25 or 50 years, but these are not certified kosher. The kosher certification was approved for products that began production within the last 15 years, so 18- and 25-year aged vinegars will become available over the next three to 10 years.

These reportedly taste purely of grape, without any additives, gums or caramel coloring. Bonini told me that it is perfect for raw meat and fish, beef, risottos, pasta, ice cream and eggs (he loves it on pumpkin ravioli). Fabio, who is neither vegan nor Jewish, said he spends part of the year in Miami and is a fan of the Crudo Kosher Fish Market there.

In addition to PDO, Bonini also makes non-PDO balsamic vinegars. Any vinegar bottled either before reaching the 12-year minimum standard, or even if aged, that does not go through the consortium approval process, is called Condimento. These can be excellent and depending on their age, they will vary in woody notes and a mix of acidity and sweetness. In fact, an aged condimento may be the same product as the PDO version, while being less expensive. Bonini Condimento products start at three years and are available at eight and 12 years. Many of these are used by restaurant clients who want the aged product, but do not require the consortium’s seal of approval.

Given that no PDO vinegar has been available with kosher certification before, and the IKC certification is not as well known nationally as others, I asked its director, Rabbi Zev Schwartz, about the process he used to certify this unique product. Rabbi Schwartz is a musmach of Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland with decades of experience with kashrut supervision with major kosher certifying agencies before starting his own service. IKC supervises many vegan, as well as some non-vegan restaurants, mostly in New York City and Philadelphia, as well as products and restaurants in Europe.

As both he and Bonini described it, the whole grapes are trucked to the production facility, transferred into a hopper and mechanical destemmer, followed by a crusher. The juice is extracted and strained, and pumped into a boiler where it is cooked to a temperature of about 80 degrees C (176 F). All this takes place over a few hours, never more than 24 hours per batch, and no direct handling is involved, other than starting, stopping, and adjusting the machinery and pumps. The first time any grape juice is handled by a person is after the juice has been cooked and cooled and is no longer subject to the rules of handling by non-Jews.

At this point, the juice is transferred into a large barrel for one year, and is then transferred to progressively smaller barrels where it will naturally evaporate over several years. The barrels are used exclusively for cooked grape juice and are a different size than those used for aging wine. In any case the barrels would not be an issue for the same reason that they are not an issue for sherry casks used in scotch production. To obtain PDO status, vinegars aged at least 12 years are sent to the producers’ consortium where they are blind tasted and, if approved, bottled by the consortium in standard bottles and sent back to Bonini’s plant for labeling.

In addition, all the grapes, of the Trebbiano variety, are grown exclusively for balsamic vinegar production, not for drinking juice or wine. According to Rabbi Schwartz, while he does not rely on this, some authorities hold that the juice extracted from such grapes would not be subject to the restrictive handling rules for grape juice intended for drinking.

In the interest of full disclosure, the OU applies a stricter standard regarding handling and bottling. According to an article on their website about wine production, the OU considers the prohibition of handling grape juice by non-Jews to take effect once the grapes are crushed, the juice is separated from the pulp and the pits, and is collected. From this point until the juice is cooked, non-Jews cannot operate any of the equipment, as the OU considers this handling. The OU goes further and requires supervision any time a barrel is tapped or opened, including during bottling, even for mevushal wines, which do not have limitations on handling by non-Jews.

Every kashrut agency makes choices about whether to follow the normative halacha, impose stringencies, add rules designed to address practical concerns that go beyond the halachic requirements, or rely on lenient opinions. When different communities have different interpretations, many agencies apply multiple stringencies to appeal to the broadest possible market. It is not my purpose to validate or invalidate the halachic necessity of a particular standard used by the OU, IKC, or any other agency. I believe the best approach is to present information about what standard is used, providing transparency for the consumer. They can then determine, in consultation with their personal halachic authority, what is appropriate for them.

Like the new matured IGP balsamic vinegars discussed previously, this new traditional balsamic vinegar will be an exciting and welcome addition to the kosher pantry and restaurant kitchen.

By Michael Rogovin

 

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