Friday, February 24, 2006

The Fallible Balsamic Vinegar Litmus Test...


I thought I had something all figured out. But now I'm not so sure.

I thought that one surefire way to calculate the relative financial success of an artist or creative person is to make note of what kind of balsamic vinegar they use in their kitchen. You see, artists, often being sensualists with active and evolving tastes, are susceptible to the pleasures of certain outrageously overpriced gourmet items. When times are good, the expensive balsamic vinegar can usually be spotted right there on the window sill or in some cozy kitchen cubby hole. When times are bad, the cheap watered down stuff will do, and hopefully it's not hidden away in some cupboard, for a good creative person should not feel the need to hide their times of struggle. Art and creativity are seldom in line with the ebb and flow of the marketplace.

Now of course, many so-called "gourmet" items are completely bogus. They exist only to plug up the gaping potholes in so many flabby-souled Beverly Hills housewive's lives. But the alert consumer will disregard these red herrings, and with trial and error will eventually discover those products which embody the principal of "you get what you pay for." (And, if you're lucky, you will get some very nicely designed packaging thrown in as a bonus.)

Not to call myself an artist, but I am a good example of this theory in action. In good times, I am partial to Villa Manodori. It is as thick as honey, rich brown-black in color, and not too acidic. It's concentratedness is overwhelmingly evident: One tiny drop on the end of your finger will taste like an entire collapsed galaxy of grape must spreading across your tongue. It goes well on anything from Corn Flakes to ice cream. This stuff runs anywhere from $30-50 a bottle which sounds like a lot but is only a fraction of what you can pay for some of the top shelf "tradizionale" blends. In less good times, I'll pick up any old $4 bottle off the shelf of any supermarket. And ironically, I will enjoy the cheap stuff almost as much. There is something absolutely essential and humanizing about scaling back, making sacrifices, and going through periods where your senses are deprived of material finery. That's not an original thought, true, but in my experience it remains a key to retaining some kind of perspective that is relevant in and to the world at large.

But I digress. Like wine or olives, the varieties and qualities of balsamic vinegars runs the gamut. It is produced from the concentrated juice ("must") of white grapes (typically, trebbiano grapes) that has been boiled down to approximately 50% of its original volume, and fermenting that into alcohol. This is then once again fermented to balsamic vinegar, with a slow aging process that concentrates the flavors. The flavor is intensified over decades, with the vinegar being kept in fine wooden casks, becoming sweet, viscous and very concentrated in flavor. The finest and most traditional balsamic vinegar is very labor-intensive to produce; while it ages and gradually evaporates, the liquid is transferred to successively smaller casks made of different woods, absorbing the flavor characteristics of each wood and becoming more concentrated with each transfer. Oak, mulberry, chestnut, cherry, juniper, and ash are the most commonly used woods. Some older balsamic vinegar is added to the "must" to create a more complex and intricate taste, and to add acidity. Continue reading this plagarized wikipedia entry here.

In conclusion, my Balsamic Vinegar Theory doesn't really work. Many artists and creative types are not the material sensualists you might want or expect them to be. In fact, many will champion the cheap wine they drink and the generic cigarettes they smoke as a token of authenticity or independence. Or many simply have learned to do without anything but the most basic material needs. So maybe vinegar is not the ideal barometer for creative success. Maybe there's no need for such thing. But, I do suspect that everyone on a fluxuating income has that one luxury item or indulgeance that they will only partake in when the coffers are full.


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