Eating. balsamic vinegar.
I found in the pantry a slender, tall bottle of dark glass, labelled 'Tears of Cleopatra,' stoppered with a small, carefully carved cork, sealed with red wax. Inside was a dark liquid that poured slowly out, as if reluctant to leave the darkness of its bottle, thick and sweet and just faintly acidic, a dark, complex taste that felt like the memory of a balmy summer night. Balsamic vinegar. But not the kind that you drizzle over your salad or dip bread into. Oh no, this was something dark and mysterious and rare, aged and mellowed until you could drink it from tiny glasses, like a precious, sacred wine, all the softness of the night sky distilled into a single drop.
At some point in time olive oil and balsamic vinegar replaced butter in restaurants (other than Italian restaurants, which has always served bread this way, for as long as I can remember), served in shallow dishes alongside baskets of bread, two concentric circles, dark balsamic, green-gold oil. Sometimes there would be herbs sprinkled in the oil, infusing it with their dusty fragrance, bringing with them memories of summer days on Mediterranean hillsides covered in shrubs that released their scents under the blazing sun.
There are other things you can do with a good balsamic vinegar, not the cheap stuff that bites sharply on the tongue and stings the teeth, but the good stuff, aged in wooden barrels, like wine (and priced accordingly). K. makes salad dressing with it, poured into a jar with olive oil and a little mustard and shaken into a thick emulsion, a little sweet, a little tangy. I love the taste of balsamic vinegar on tomatoes in the height of summer. It is about the contrast. Or over strawberries, the vinegar turning the berries a deeper, richer red with the translucent glow of stained glass. (Once I layered the balsamic-intensified strawberries with slices of brownies and whipped cream, and it was heavenly). But what I like most is that simple thing, a hunk of crusty bread, dusty with flour and airy with bubbles, with that faintly complicated taste of naturally leavened bread, dipped in a shallow bowl of olive oil swirled with balsamic vinegar.
That mysterious bottle labelled "Tears of Cleopatra" looks like something that its namesake queen would have used to store precious oils and ointments and perfumes some two thousand years ago. Perhaps she drank something like it, in her time. It would not surprise me. She knew a good thing when she saw it.