A short history of balsamic glaze—the sticky condiment that epitomises an era of British culture

From cheap overseas holidays and cool Britannia to the rise of the gastropub, balsamic glaze was a middle-class staple that became an icon of the 1990s

October 14, 2019
Balsamic glaze became iconic in the 1990s. Photo: PA/Prospect Composite
Balsamic glaze became iconic in the 1990s. Photo: PA/Prospect Composite

Britain’s Balsamic Glaze Days kicked-off in the 1980s. The condiment, a versatile, sweet reduction made by adding sugar to balsamic vinegar and cooking it down to thicken, arrived during a time of chicken Kievs and Viennetta, vol au vents and trifle; when chicken satay was still mysteriously exotic and PizzaExpress was one of the most rousing haunts in town—or so I’m told.

“I can remember thinking it was quite delicious in the early years, and its inky, viscous blackness was so beautiful on the plate,” remembers food writer Debora Robertson. But she says its appeal faded over the years, such was its commonality. “Now I see a squiggle of glaze on a plate (usually somewhere in France) and I just think they're phoning it in and they've given up. It's bagged salad in liquid form.”

While balsamic glaze has its roots in the ‘80s, it isn’t an ‘80s icon. Its ubiquity started in the 1990s, a subsequence of the gastropub movement. In the late ‘90s, and well into the 2000s, balsamic glaze was deployed onto square white plates with such careless abandon it would not be overstepping to say it defined pub culture.

It was probably a combination of factors that help propel Italian food into such familarity. New Labour oversaw a time of surplus, where people felt they had money to spend. Trips to the Continent were democratised further, as were visits to nouveau gastropubs that attempted to echo the wining and dining of the Amalfi coast and Provence. Jamie Oliver’s inaugural television series, The Naked Chef, first aired in 1999. Balsamic glaze was quickly cemented as a middle-class inclination.

Liverpool-born publican Ben Evans, who now runs The Windmill, Clapham, remembers its glory years: “Back then I was working in branded places, so Slug & Lettuce—when the food used to be good—and briefly All Bar One.”

“It was every pub group development chef’s dream, a real flavour bomb that (they certainly thought) seemed to add sophistication. It was one of those ingredients that might have indicated a decent menu, at least in those days.”

Despite its popularity, its status appeared undimmed. Even in the haughtiest of establishments, you might have found the stuff drizzled in a zig-zag beside sun-blushed tomatoes and mozzarella; in satellite town pubs of middling ability, meanwhile, where sliced bavette steaks were wheeled out en masse to revellers under Homebase canopies, it was cult-like to the point that it epitomised an era.

Up to circa 2012, it was everywhere, a bastion of the provinces, bordering rocket salads and dancing merrily atop butternut squash and feta stacks. Balsamic glaze was dipping slightly above average bread into olive oil while asking for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It was a distinctly British enjoyment: something so nearly cultured, proffering a faint hint of adventure but fundamentally safe and familiar, like driving a Volvo to Calais.

Eater London editor Adam Coghlan says: “I think as a product it can be immense. When it was popularised, it was a new and interesting condiment that served as a sign of class and sophistication.”

“I specifically remember one dish: a chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella, wrapped in Parma ham, on a bed of new potatoes,” says Evans. “It came with the obligatory v-shaped drizzle of balsamic glaze over the top—the definitive garnish.”

“Maybe it has a bad rep now. Although I’ve still got some in my cupboard. I wouldn’t make a Caprese salad without it!”

I, too, remember being drawn in while working in pubs in my teens and early 20s. A little late to the party—it was by then the mid-2010s—I still saw it everywhere.

“I think its raisin-like sweetness was the key to its popularity,” says Coghlan. Not only was this thing Continental and luxe, but it was also accessible from a flavour profile perspective. Even though it may not have quite had the same culinary cachet as foie gras, it was much like the ‘George's Marvellous Medicine’ of the late-90s or 2000s dinner party.”

Coghlan also points out that popular television chefs such as Jamie Oliver championed balsamic glaze: “One of his books—Jamie at Home, I think—included balsamic vinegar in a recipe for Madras curry paste.”

Like everything, its fad status couldn’t last. Paul Ainsworth—who owns, among others, the Michelin-starred No.6 restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall—recalls a period when balsamic glaze started losing its star quality and become a mechanism of laziness and tedium.

“I think a lot of chefs just bought in cheap balsamic vinegar, added loads of sugar, boiled it down, and there you go,” Ainsworth tells me. “It’s not necessarily bad—I still love it with rocket and Parmesan. Alongside a pizza, that’s a real winner on a weeknight. Done properly, it can be tremendous.”

“British diners expect more now. There’s a greater knowledge of ingredients and a keener understanding of food. If you see a zig-zag of balsamic drizzle next to a sirloin steak and Jenga chips, you know the chef probably doesn’t care enough.”

As British pubs began shifting towards food—out of economic necessity, or our feted dining renaissance, or both—it was an efficient way to pronounce intention, Ainsworth says. It was upmarket, like prosecco once was—no, really—when value and trend weren’t mutually exclusive. Today, cheap prosecco glugging out of a tap and balsamic glaze are a nod to the luxuries of ten years ago.

Ainsworth adds: “We’ve gone beyond balsamic now. Food isn’t so much about status, or looking like status. People genuinely want quality stuff these days. Nobody wants fads.”

“Take fish and chips with ‘beer batter’. Some people are full of shit. Nobody can taste the beer after a battered fish has been deep-fried in oil. The trick is cold soda water from behind the bar.”

“As tasty as Doom Bar is, it doesn’t do anything to improve a piece of haddock.”

At The Mariners, Ainsworth’s pub in Rock, Cornwall, a pint is £3.80 and whitebait and Welsh rarebit are on the menu. It’s accessible, hearty food. But, as he puts it, “mate, seriously, balsamic glaze would be quite a stupid thing to do.”

I don’t want to sound like a snob—but it is probably a good thing to see we have largely moved on. Maybe British palates really have improved?

“There is always the risk when looking back at once fashionable flavours that our criticism can seem rather smug,” Donald Sloan, head of the Oxford Cultural Collective, says. “We are relieved that we have moved on, that our tastes are supposedly so much more sophisticated these days.”

“Having said that, in this case, our relief is justified. Whereas once it was quite the thing for the aspirant middle classes to drizzle this overly sweet reduction over meat and salad, masking the flavours of all it touched, now their search is for simplicity, for unadulterated ingredients that shine in their own right.”