Balsamic Begone

Ximena of the lovely blog Lobstersquad (tagline: “a food blog with drawings”) posted a funny rant this week about the rampant misuse of balsamic vinegar, brought on by an egregious example involving fried eggs at a low-key restaurant in Sevilla. “In what stupid parallel universe does anyone think a fried egg is improved by a brown squiggle?” she fumes, going on to lament the tendency of chefs all over Spain to “doodle on plates” with balsamic reductions and completely ignore the great local vinegars.

But in her eyes the worst thing about balsamic is its tendency to overwhelm if used indiscriminately:

Listen: balsamic vinegar is not a neutral ingredient. As well as acidity, it has a bunch of other flavours (wine vinegar, grape must, sulphites E22o, caramel colouring E150D, anyone?). It should not be thrown about any old how. It can be a wonderful product, but it can also be pretty intrusive and pointless. If I had my way, I’d forbid the wanton use of this substance to all except
A. Italians. they invented the thing, they know what to do with it
B. good chefs. Ditto about knowing

It seems she’s not alone in her exasperation with balsamic: A few months ago, Chowhounders discussed the overabundance of the stuff (and I’m assuming they were talking about American cuisine, ‘cause I’ve certainly seen my share of little brown dots on plates stateside, not to mention “palate cleansers” of macerated fruits in balsamic). The ‘hounds echo Ximena’s worry that other worthy vinegars are getting short shrift, and that balsamic tends to commandeer the flavor of
a dish.

But I wonder if this balsamic backlash is due in part to the fact that a lot of what we’re tasting in restaurants isn’t authentic balsamic, the kind made from pure must (unfermented, syrupy grape juice). The latter is expensive, and the balsamic that you see in most stores (and, I’d wager, in low-end and midrange restaurant kitchens) is diluted with regular ol’ wine vinegar. Of course, the real-deal version has a more intense flavor, so maybe authenticity’s not the issue at all. To borrow a phrase from Nicolas Cage, maybe it’s just time we all put the balsamic back in the box.

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