Ciao'd while listening to Van Morrison in a downpour. Oh, the water. 

“It doesn’t look like vinegar, it looks like hair tonic.”  Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma, uttered these auspicious words when he happened upon balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) on a visit to Italy in the mid-1970s. His curiosity besting the form is function message of the bottle, Chuck found his way to Modena. The town, tucked into the Emilia-Romagna region, not only lays claim to Ferrari and Pavarotti but balsamic vinegar, too. Chuck finagled an introduction to Fini, one of the top balsamic vinegar producers at that time. One thing led to another and Chuck introduced balsamic vinegar to the American public in 1977. And presto! The vinegar has been a denizen of pantries ever since.

I suppose one could say balsamic vinegar flows through the veins of the Modenese. Families make their own balsamic vinegar, aging it in the eaves where the scorching summer heat promotes aging and the cold winter helps with setting and clarity.  These zealously guarded recipes are passed from generation to generation. Often, the vinegar “mother” enriches a daughter’s dowry. I know, right? In this day and age!

When I traveled with Chuck to Modena, we visited acetaias resonating with sweet-sour aromas laced with the mottled woodiness of barrels (some hundreds of years old) crafted from mulberry, acacia, cherry, juniper, and oak. We tasted the vinegar from spoons – balsamic vinegar has historically been employed as an elixir, and most lovely of all, drizzled on Parmigiano-Reggiano, another glory of the region. 

While there are as many balsamic vinegar recipes as there are families in Modena, commonalities thread through them. True balsamic vinegar starts with Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes from Modena vineyards. The grape must, a fresh-pressed juice of grapes, skins, stems, and seeds is cooked and poured into barrels. To start the aging process, the juice is mixed with a little of last year’s balsamic. This is the “mother” I referenced above. The mother, well, shall we say gives birth to the vinegar process. But, wait, wait! The best part is that as the vinegar ages, it is decanted into a series of varietal wood barrels in different sizes, starting from large to small. The various woods imbue the vinegar with roundness and balance and the vinegar’s signature sweetness, bestowed by the ripe grapes, wafts through the acidity.  The result: a lush lucidity suspended in dark, rich, syrupy goodness.  

My friend, Liz Tagami, knows more than anybody I know (except, maybe, Chuck) about balsamic vinegar. Colleagues at Williams-Sonoma, we traveled with Chuck to Modena many times. Now, Liz is the general manager for Lucero Olive Oil, an acclaimed grower and producer of extra-virgin olive oil in Northern California. While Lucero’s olive oils are out of this world (that story another time), their balsamic vinegar, imported from Modena, natch, is superb. In a lovely nod to the perfection of balsamic vinegar on its own (which Lucero offers, too), Liz and company infuse the vinegar with fruit. Let’s just say, this technique adds even more love to the lushness.

Thinking about Valentine’s Day recipes, I experimented with Lucero’s Blackberry Red Balsamic Vinegar. The result is this super simple and #dolcevitadelish Pork Tenderloin with Blackberry Balsamic Compote. If food is the way to the heart, this is the most direct route. And p.s. why not make extra compote to bestow as Valentine gifts?



The sweet-tart flavor delivered by the blackberry balsamic compote complements the mild pork. Easy to prepare as a weeknight meal, this dish is pretty enough for a dinner party, too.

Serves 4 to 6

1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pork tenderloins (1 to 1 ¼ pounds each), trimmed
2 teaspoons olive oil
Blackberry Balsamic Compote

Preheat oven to 450ºF.

In a small bowl, blend the oregano, garlic, salt and pepper.  Rub the spice mixture into the pork, pressing gently so the seasoning adheres to the tenderloins.

Brush the oil in a baking dish large enough to hold the pork without crowding and place it in the oven for 5 minutes. Remove the baking dish from the oven and place the pork in it. Return to the oven and roast 10 minutes. Turn. Roast until lightly pink in the center (internal temperature 140º to 145ºF), 10 to 15 minutes more.

Remove the pork from the oven and let the meat sit 10 minutes before cutting into ½-inch slices. Serve with the warm blackberry balsamic compote.