The Black Death, or bubonic plague began somewhere in Asia in the 1340’s. By 1347 it reached the southern shores of Europe. By the turn of the decade 75 million people worldwide had perished, 25-50 million of which came from Europe, roughly 30-60% of that continent’s population. Yersinia pestis is the strain of bacteria responsible for the pandemic. Fleas become infected with the bacillus who in turn take refuge on rats, which are then a catalyst for spreading the disease*. Bubonic plague is named after the buboes, i.e., pus-oozing sores of inflamed lymphatic tissue, which erupt around the neck, armpits and groin of inflicted individuals. Accompanied by flu-like symptoms and internal bleeding, and without the aid of modern antibiotics, most victims died within two weeks.
The death toll was astounding. Densely populated cities like Bordeaux were littered with rotting corpses. It is almost inconceivable the dread and panic the general populace must have felt. Naturally, true to their 14th century understanding of the world, all sorts of irrational beliefs about the causes and cures of the disease arose. Vinegar was one substance that was considered to have both prophylactic and curative properties. Individuals would rub vinegar on their skin to safeguard against becoming infected. Likewise, many elixirs of the day included vinegar as one of its ingredients.
Vinegar, while not a treatment for Bubonic plague, has one very important aspect in common with it: they are both created by bacteria. Vinegar results when bacteria paint the town red via the alcohol in a fermented beverage thus converting it to a weak acetic acid solution…..(I love the parallels)….…much like people who imbibe excessively can act caustically as well. Vinegar can be made from a wide range of fermented juices including grapes, various fruits, rice, grains, etc., thus offering a plethora of flavor profiles. Vinegar is indispensable in any kitchen, having probably even more uses than there are types.
Balsamic vinegar, originally from Modena, Italy, but also made in Emilia-Romagna, is a highly-prized, labor intensive and delicious vinegar made from Trebbiano grapes. Authentic balsamic vinegar is crafted by aging it in a series of barrels of decreasing size, each composed of differing types of wood to impart an array of flavors. As it is stored in each barrel some of it, known as “The Angel’s Share” evaporates, thus prompting the transmission into the next cask.
This successive process results in a dark, concentrated, sweet, and intensely flavored product. Real balsamic vinegar must age for at least 12 years but some of the most preeminent ones are aged for a century. At this point diluting its integrity by dispersing it into a dish is practically a defilement. Often such perfected balsamic is sipped like a fine cognac.
You may have noticed my emphasis of “authentic” balsamic vinegar and “real” balsamic vinegar. That’s because there’s plenty of fakes out there; inferior products mass produced by entrepreneurs who care more about cupidity than integrity. If you’re paying $5 for your balsamic vinegar, you’re not buying the real McCoy. You’re buying some other type of inexpensive vinegar with additives designed to mimic the color and sweetness of real balsamic. And don’t be fooled by a bottle that reads “from Modena or of Modena.” There are charlatans in balsamic’s city of origin as well as in America. The age of real balsamic is denoted by the color of the label, red meaning 12 years, silver meaning 18 and gold meaning 25 or more. But, these colors are not legally controlled and unscrupulous producers of bogus balsamic may use them to trick the average unsuspecting consumer. Genuine balsamic vinegar is expensive and usually comes in smaller bottles. However, there’s only way to know for certain whether a bottle of balsamic is the real deal: It must have the words aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena or aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia.
Like all vinegars, balsamic has multifarious uses in the kitchen. Salad dressings, marinades, glazes, sauces, and syrups are just some of the concoctions that are balsamic friendly. Deglaze a pan with it, drizzle it over meat or fruit, or use it as a finishing touch for risotto. The options are endless. My favorite is a simple strawberry salad of strawberries, sugar, mint leaves and balsamic. Generally speaking, the higher the quality of the balsamic the less it should be diluted, (such as combining it with other elements to make a sauce), and the more it should be consumed in its purest form, such as the aforementioned drizzling of it over the finished product.
RECIPE BALSAMIC ROASTED VEGETABLES
• 1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut into 1 ½ to 2-inch pieces • 1 lb. turnips, peeled and cut into 1 ½ to 2-inch pieces • 1 lb small beets, (peeled and cut somewhat smaller than the carrots or turnips) • Olive oil, as needed • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar • Salt and pepper to taste • 4 oz. crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine the vegetables in a large bowl with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper, tossing well to coat evenly. Spread the vegetables out in a roasting pan or on a foil covered baking sheet. Roast for about 40 minutes or until the desired degree of doneness. Check on their progress along the way and stir them around for even roasting. When finished sprinkle with the Gorgonzola and serve.
* The traditional flea-rat-human transmission theory of the plague has been questioned. Other routes of infection may have existed. Moreover, there is even speculation that another disease, possibly anthrax, was active at the same time as the bubonic plague.