Historically, the category of balsamic, balsamico or balsamic vinegar consisted of products with levels of quality all over the map. Some careful producers, employing traditional methods, produced balsamics with beautiful balance and depth of flavor. At the same time, large, industrial producers sold balsamics using inexpensive ingredients and time-saving technologies to maximize profits, capitalizing on the balsamic name.
On a recent trip to Italy, I had the opportunity to visit a co-op that makes Parmigiano Reggiano. It was a first for me – I have witnessed the cheesemaking process before and have even tried my hand at making chèvre but I have never before observed the making of a hard, aged cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano. A small group of farmers in the area bring milk to the co-operative each week and, starting at 5am every day, that milk begins a process that transforms it into a cheese so many of us know and love. Parmigiano Reggiano is a DOP product. In Italian, DOP stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin).
One of the questions that we often field on the cheese counter is what the term AOC actually tells us about a given cheese.