Balsamic vinegar: You get what you pay for
Could you explain the various pros and cons of balsamic vinegar? Normally I would spend around $50 for a 200ml bottle, but I see the best balsamics aged 100 years sell for $1200 for 300ml - this would be approximately $5 for quarter of a teaspoon. How would you use such a valuable ingredient? Is it possible that such small quantities would be lost on the dish? What dishes would be enhanced by such an expensive ingredient? And how does one choose the best value for money when buying balsamic vinegar?
Answering that is as tricky as justifying the price of a bottle of exceptional fine wine or a rare and seasonal ingredient. For many reading this, trying to justify why "vinegar" could possibly cost $20 a teaspoon will be pointless, and in many ways that's completely understandable.
For others, however, it'll be a culinary experience well worth celebrating along with a glass of Dom Perignon (compared to a bottle of bubbly NZ white) and a white Alba truffle (compared to a button mushroom).
Personally, I've never tasted a 100-year-old vinegar, but I have had them aged for 50 years or so and I have to say I found the taste exquisite. To understand the reason for the seemingly excessive cost involves an understanding and comparison of the production of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (lets call it ABT) compared to the production of balsamic vinegar (much cheaper and more easily found in stores all over New Zealand).
It's important to note that the expensive ABT isn't really vinegar, as it's made from a reduction of cooked grape juice aged for a minimum of 12 years in a variety of wooden barrels by artisan producers in Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy, who have been making this gorgeous condiment for generations.
It has a pleasant sharpness, but it's nowhere near as sour as regular vinegar, and it also has a subtle, but powerful, sweetness and a thick syrupy texture. It's been mentioned in text from the Middle Ages - back as far as 1046 - so you're getting a lot of history with it.
Ordinary balsamic vinegar is made by mixing regular wine vinegar with colouring, caramels and occasionally thickeners to resemble the more expensive ABT. This doesn't mean it's a "bad" product, but explains why it can be made in enormous quantities on a daily basis.
The exceedingly more expensive ABT gives an enormous depth of flavour and a taste sensation not dissimilar to umami (the most recent of the tongue's senses as discovered by the Japanese). I have to say that the best way to justify the extra price is to simply no longer think of it as vinegar but as a rare seasoning.
But of course, at the price you mention, who is going to take a risk on it - drizzling it on a charcoal-grilled steak, over buffalo mozzarella or on a tranche of steamed sea bass as I've had it over the years.
So, let's start at the beginning. Is there justification in charging $1200 for 300ml of vinegar? No.
Is there justification in charging this same amount for a delicious ingredient that has taken 100 years to make, taking into account its heritage and strict production guidelines? Yes.
I'd suggest you get a group of friends together and form a collective and buy a bottle. For 300ml, you'll have 60 teaspoons worth to play with. It might well be worth it.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.