Italy's ancient, honorable vinegar trickles into the New World

''WOULD you care for some vinegar on your ice cream?'' The question is enough to make you wince. Unless of course, you've tasted the aged, semi-sweet, heady flavor of the best aceto balsamico - better known outside of Italy as balsamic vinegar.

One sniff, one lick, and don't be too surprised if your answer is a resounding ''Yes, please!''

Here in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, people have known the secret of distilling and aging this dark, aromatic, and expensive liquid for hundreds of years.

And not just as a vinaigrette to dress their lettuce and radicchio salads.

They may whet their appetites with a tablespoonful in a glass of water before dinner; sprinkle a few drops on their eggs, fish, or meat; and yes, even top a scoop of ice cream with some or splash it on slices of fresh fruit - strawberries especially.

Modena is the place where this rare liquid takes on the depth and proportion that has recently put it in high demand far beyond the borders of Italy.

Most of the better food shops and even supermarkets throughout Europe and the United States now stock some variety of balsamic vinegar. You'll also find it dressing the pages of gourmet catalogs.

Prices range from a few dollars a bottle to $40 or more. In Italy the vinegar is sometimes prized so highly it is not sold at all, but saved for use at weddings and special family occasions.

Guiseppe Cattani, a dark little man with a dark moustache, lives with Bruna, his wife, and their two children on a small azienda that hugs the hills and vineyards just outside Modena.

They are a shy, quiet, close family and express the patience necessary to produce this rare and much-sought-after vinegar.

Guiseppe and Bruna led four skeptical journalists up three flights of steep stairs to their attic to taste their prized vinegar. Each step brought the piquant aroma closer, making us less reluctant to sample it.

In the attic, as his wife held a tray of tiny clear glasses the size of egg cups, Guiseppe dipped a glass siphon into the seventh and smallest barrel in one of many rows. A tablespoonful of the sticky liquid was released into each glass and we were invited to drink it.

We all nodded in surprised agreement at the luscious sweet-tart flavor; some of us, myself included, asked for more.

As we stood sipping 30-year-old vinegar in this warm, fragrant, dimly lit room, Guiseppe - through an interpreter - explained what makes balsamic vinegar so unique - and costly.

The Trebbiano grapes he uses are first pressed. The liquid, or ''must,'' is then simmered to reduce it to one-third.

From there, he adds a small amount of his own special starter, or ''mother,'' and the juice is left to settle for six months before being put away in large oak barrels to age for at least three years.

This mother is what gives the grape must life and imparts some of the unique flavor. Mothers are much prized and often handed down for generations. Guiseppe got his from his grandmother, who could trace it back to the 1700s.

After years in oak, the grape must is divided into smaller barrels of various woods to age some more. Some evaporates, but the remaining vinegar picks up the flavor of the wood barrel. Then the liquid is carefully poured into the next smaller barrel - of yet a different wood.

Guiseppe uses a series of seven barrels. Besides the oak, they may include kegs of chestnut, mulberry, cherry, apple, juniper, or other fruitwoods.

Although the Italian government insists that all balsamic vinegar be aged in several kinds of wood and be at least three years old, much in the Modena area is older. The older it is, the higher the price.

At the Cattanis' establishment, nothing younger than 12 years of age is sold.

Some producers - like Fini, Grosoli, and Federzoni - are large and commercial. The Cattanis' operation is very small, producing only 500 liters per year. In fact, Guiseppe bottles his vinegar only on demand for those who come knocking at his door. He will then clean out an empty bottle, fill it with the vinegar - aged and priced to your liking - cork it, and wrap it in newspaper.

The bottle I bought cost about $15 for 12 ounces. That may sound expensive, but a few drops of balsamic vinegar is equal to tablespoonsful of cider or white vinegar. A little goes a very long way.

The Cattanis shared some of their favorite ways for using aceto balsamico.

They like to fry eggs in olive oil, add Parmesan cheese, cover for 1 to 2 minutes, then add a few drops of balsamic vinegar before serving. When making a beef stew in a pressure cooker, they add a tablespoon for each serving of four.

As balsamic vinegar is stronger than other vinegars, it should be used sparingly. But don't be afraid to experiment with it. Try a few drops on cooked meats and fish. Even strawberries.

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