Friday, April 8, 2011

Oysters with a Balsamic Mignonette

I am always amazed by the stories of decades and centuries past, when people would talk of a Chesapeake Bay full of blue crabs and oysters.  Those days are gone, and it is our fault.  Through a combination of overfishing and pollution, we have decimated the populations of these beloved foods.  Still, there are some enterprising people who have been engaged in "farming" along the bay ... oyster farming.  Through their work, they have been able to help restore the cultivating of oysters in this region, but it pales in comparison to what it used to be.

When I saw Chesapeake oysters, I bought a dozen of them and took them home to make a special mignonette.  I have a bottle of eight year aged balsamic vinegar from Acetaia del Tuono, a family owned producer of balsamic business that has been in business in Emilia-Romagna since 1892.  And, as a mignonette is basically vinegar and shallots, I decided that I would substitute ordinary vinegar with this very special ingredient ... aged balsamic vinegar. 

Balsamic vinegar is one of my favorite ingredients. When I was in Emilia-Romagna, I had the opportunity to visit the Acetaia Terra del Tuono, a family owned producer, to get a first hand view of how they produce authentic balsamic vinegar. 

The production begins with the grapes.  Typically, in Emilia Romagna, producers use Trebbiano grapes, as well as  Spergola, Berzemino, and Ochio de Gatto grapes.  The grapes are crushed and then boiled down to a concentrate, which is known as mosto cotto.  The producer then puts the concentrate into a large barrel with holes on the top.  The holes permit evaporation, which allows the flavors to become even more concentrated.  After six months, the concentrate is moved to a smaller barrel to age further.  This process continues, with smaller and smaller barrels.

With the smallest barrel, the producer removes only part of the concentrate, filling the barrel with some of the liquid from the next largest barrel.  The producer repeats this with all of the barrels, except the largest one, in which the producer will add the newest cooked concentrate.  The result is that each barrel contains a blend of vinegars, with an average age that increases over the years.  The use of the series of barrels -- from large to small -- is known as the Solera method.

There are three types of balsamic vinegar: Authentic balsamic vinegar (called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale); Condimento; and commercial grade vinegars.  The Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is only produced in Reggio Emilia and Modena.  This vinegar must be aged for a minimum of twelve years using the Solera method and a series of seven barrels.  The Condimento can be made in the same way as the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (but it is not required) and can be aged for less than twelve years.  And, for the commercial grade vinegars, they are produced using wine vinegar (which is prohibited for the Aceto Balsamic Tradizionale) and other additives.

As you can expect, the price for balsamic vinegars vary, with consumer grade vinegars at one end of the spectrum and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale at the other end of the spectrum.  A bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale could cost more than $50 dollars if it is aged for the minimum of 12 years and for more than $100 dollars if aged for a greater period of time (such as 20 to 25 years).  By contrast, Condimento balsamic vinegars, are relatively cheaper.  I purchased a bottle of the Acetaia Terra del Tuono at A. Litteri, Inc. for about $25.00, which is not bad for a balsamic vinegar that has been aged for 8 years and which I know is produced closer to the standards for Tradizionale than the commercial grade stuff.  That knowledge is one of the benefits from having had the opportunity to view how Terra del Tuono produces its vinegar. 

One final note, do not subject Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale or Condimento to heat during the cooking process.  The heat will destroy the amazing flavor of these balsamic vinegars.  If you feel compelled to add balsamic vinegar to something that is going into a sauce pan or the oven, that is perhaps the best, and only, reason to buy the commercial grade stuff.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2-3

12 oysters, shucked
1/2 scallion, finely sliced and diced
4 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar
10-12 peppercorns, ground
1 pinch of sea salt

1.  Mix the scallion, pepper and balsamic vinegar.

2.  Sprinkle a few grains of salt over each oyster.  Top with the a spoonful of the mignonette.

After having just gone through this relatively easy recipe, please allow me to share a secret with you ... just simply pour a few drops of either an Aceto Balsamic Tradizionale or a Condimento on the oyster.  These balsamic vinegars are often all you need in terms of flavor to complement the oysters. 


For more about Balsamic Vinegar, check out this website and Wikipedia.

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