Several weeks back, my Mum and I did an informal little “Cowichan Valley food tour”: we stopped by Teafarm, had lunch at Merridale Cider, bought spelt bread at True Grain Bread, enjoyed some Udder Guys ice cream, and did a wine tasting at Venturi-Schulze Vineyards. Of the six or seven other wineries that we drove past on our tour, we chose Venturi-Schulze because in addition to wine, they also make traditional balsamic vinegar.
We were led through the wine tasting by an exceedingly charming young man who knew all the (quite excellent) wines intimately, giving us tasting notes and information about each variety of grape and the characteristics it brought to the wine, along with how difficult or easy it was to grow and look after (he had just been out “wrestling with the pinot”, which I assume means pruning or tying up or something along those lines). After our last taste of wine, he handed us each a teaspoon, took out a little bottle with a dropper, and gave us a drop of balsamic vinegar to taste. He explained that balsamic vinegar, contrary to popular opinion, is not in fact made from bad wine, but rather from very good grape juice, cooked down to a concentrate and aged for many years (I think he said up to twenty-two?) in various different wooden casks and barrels, where it reduces and ferments into a syrupy, sweet vinegar that barely resembles the commercial grade balsamic vinegar that you find in the grocery store. This is a true artisan product, and the Venturi-Schulze family was recently recognized for it in the ACE Bakery Artisan Incubator.
So how does this traditional balsamic vinegar taste? In one word: amazing. It is strong – it’s still vinegar, after all – but sweet and dark, almost like port. It reminded me a lot of raisins, which makes sense if you think of raisins as aged, concentrated grapes. The small drop that I tasted was enough to set all my taste buds tingling, so a little bit goes a long way – which is a good thing, because a small bottle costs sixty-five dollars. But this is not vinegar to make pickles or salad dressing with: it is for adding sparingly to dishes after they are cooked to enhance their flavour, to be eaten as a condiment with cheese, and it can even be drizzled over fruit. To this end, they were selling strawberry jam made with black pepper and their balsamic vinegar, which struck me as a delicious combination. Unfortunately I couldn’t take home a bottle of vinegar with me, but that jam stayed in my head, so when I scored these “jam berries” (ie, over-ripe local strawberries) for cheap at the green grocer, I knew exactly what I was going to do with them.
Luckily you can (and actually should) make this jam with plain Jane grocery store balsamic vinegar, which holds up just fine to the high heat and longer cooking time required for jam (which would ruin the traditional balsamic vinegar – I assume that to make jam with the real stuff, a small amount is added at the end of cooking). I’ve made several different kinds of jam this summer (no wonder my fridge was full of it!) but this is definitely the best: intensely strawberry-flavoured with a little adult kick from the black pepper and a sweet-and-sour tang from the balsamic vinegar. It’s good with cheese in a sort of savoury application, but I have been eating it on toast as well, can’t wait to spread it on a hot-from-the-oven scone, and I bet it would make a killer strawberry cheesecake. In fact, it is so good that I even kept the foam that I skimmed off the jam while it was cooking – it was delicious stirred into yogurt. 😉
Strawberry Balsamic Black Pepper Jam
Adapted from Gourmet via Epicurious. Makes about 5 half-pint jars.
In a large bowl, combine:
6 cups very ripe strawberries, hulled and chopped into small pieces
2 cups granulated white sugar
Stir together, cover, and let macerate overnight (or up to 3 days) in the fridge.
The next day (or whenever you are ready to make jam), pour the berries and their accumulated juices into a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pot (a Dutch oven is perfect) and add:
2 1/2 cups granulated white sugar
9 tbsp balsamic vinegar (commercial grade rather than the traditional stuff!)
1 tbsp cracked black pepper
Bring the contents of the pot up to a hard boil over medium-high heat, skimming off the foam with a spoon as necessary. Stir the jam frequently to avoid it scorching on the bottom and continue boiling until it reaches 220˚F on a candy thermometer or just until it sets when a little bit is spooned onto a chilled plate (about 20 – 30 minutes).
Ladle the hot jam into 5 clean, hot half-pint jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. I follow Marissa’s canning method at Food in Jars – it’s a great tutorial and she is a canning master. After 10 minutes, remove the jars from the water and let them cool completely, undisturbed. Once cool, check that the lids have properly sealed. Store any that don’t seal in the fridge and eat them first.