To taste authentic balsamic vinegar is something of an experience. Possessing a history of healing properties, this import from Modena, Italy, is created under a strict process regulated by the Italian government before it can be deemed a traditional artisan product. House of Balsamic president Manrico Mincuzzi brought the brand overseas because he feels that Americans "need a balanced feeling during these trying times."
The Malpighi family has produced balsamic vinegar since 1850 with a passion, a passion House of Balsamic extends into cooking, travel and art. Stepping into its "academy" in an Irvine office park, it's much more than just office space. Paintings by Laguna Beach artists welcome you. An exhibition kitchen overlooks its occasional dining room. A complete inventory on display culminates around an intimate tasting table.
Visuals of travel destinations, including one of Navajo tribes in Arizona, line a hallway. Meandering visitors will discover an installation by artist Bill Matisse, performance space and a staircase leading into an additional gallery.
Modena's microclimate of heated summer eves and icy winter nights is "beneficial for the aging process" of Trebbiano (not to be confused with Joey Tribbiani) and Lambrusco grapes, according to academy director Maria Marking. Once harvested, the fruit is pressed of its juices and reduced over an open flame, thus creating a concentrate called must. The must is then mixed with a mother vinegar, similar to a sourdough starter, and stored in wooden barrels to ferment for a minimum of 12 years. During this time, a portion evaporates and is referred to as the "angels' share".
Solera is the process by which must is decanted from one cask to another, blending with older aged batches and creating a family's signature flavor. It's important to note that no other substances are added during the maturation process of traditional balsamic vinegar, making it a unique condiment. Aging can be as few as 12 years, or as many as 100. A government consortium intervenes during the bottling process to determine if a batch meets a specific set of criteria worthy of designation. These attributes include vineyard and production location, solera procedure, chemical attributes and presentation. If the product meets all the criteria, approval is marked by a seal placed on the bottle bearing DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) designation. The vinegar is then numbered and registered.
Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena was once used by alchemists for its curing properties. Considered "a finishing product, not an add-in," per Maria, their balsamic now comes in many forms, but is best known in its purest state. A young balsamic aged for 12 years is still sophisticated, complementing a variety of dishes including eggs and red meat. However, an 80-year bottle possesses a richness, a complexity only obtained over time. They are priced accordingly, at $89 and $430, respectively, for 3.38-ounce bottles. House of Balsamic is, indeed, a luxury brand.
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The Saba is a natural balsamic sweetener used over fresh fruit or ice cream. Maria recommends mixing it with Pellegrino and mint for a refreshing drink. Along the same lines, the Prelibato is a traditional white balsamic vinegar with a delicate taste. A versatile condiment, it can be enjoyed drizzled over oysters or mixed into a muddy waters cocktail. Translucent jellies can complement charcuterie platters. Naturally infused with fresh apple or orange, fruity balsamics can top risotto and vegetables. Even dark chocolate is infused with a sweet drop of Malpighi balsamic.
Although Manrico will not admit to a favorite product; because he enjoys all of them, he does admit to how they chose Orange County as the location for their academy. Viewing Southern California as a constantly evolving area, he believes House of Balsamic "can make a difference contributing culturally." His company's passion for showcasing only the finest products and experiences is embodied in that first taste.
The House of Balsamic is located at 5 Mason, Ste., 200, (949) 455-0006; www.houseofbalsamic.com. House of Balsamic is open for retail and travel inquiries Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Select products are also available at Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table.