News of 04.09.23

Saba, origin and uses of an ancient ingredient


The Saba – or Sapa- is a condiment with a dark, thick and syrupy appearance recalling the texture of honey, it is typical of various areas in Italy, among which Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Sardinia. Its peasant origins are ancient and probably derive from the use of waste from wine production: Saba, in fact, is a syrup obtained by cooking and refining the must of white or black grapes. Saba may also be obtained from honey, figs or the concentration of fruit juices by cooking, but the original and most widespread version in the peasant tradition is the one made with grapes.

How Saba is made

Saba has in common with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar the slow boiling of the must, which takes place in a copper pot over low heat with the possible addition of cinnamon, cloves and lemon or orange peel and lasts over 36 hours, until the must concentrates by about 2/3. In the past, we used to add nuts in their shells so that the slow simmering would cause them to turn over in the pot, preventing the wort from sticking to the bottom. No sugar is ever added in our Saba!

During cooking, the syrup is continuously purified by skimming it and eliminating impurities with a sieve. Once ready, the saba is left to cool and rest so that it becomes clearer, then it is bottled and stored in a cool, dry place. Thanks to the high sugar content, the saba can be kept for a long time. That’s the reason why it was traditionally used as a sweetener when there was no cane or beet sugar.

Traditional origins & uses

The words "saba" and "sapa" derive from the Latin term sàpor. In fact, the saba is so ancient that it was already mentioned in Pliny's Naturalis Historia. The famous gastronome Pellegrino Artusi talks about it more extensively in his work Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well of 1891:

 “Sapa, which is nothing but a grape syrup, can be useful in the kitchen for various uses since it has a special taste suitable for some dishes. It is also always appreciated by children who in winter, with it and with freshly fallen snow, can improvise sorbets”.

This description explains well how saba, was used as a sweetener and condiment for various typical sweets of various regions, such as Modena Christmas bread and Sardinian Pan'e Saba, as well as a myriad of other pastries, ravioli and stuffed tortelli of different regional traditions. As Artusi recalls, in the peasant tradition it was also added to a little fresh snow to create a natural granita for children.

Thanks to its fruity and sweet-and-sour taste, just like balsamic vinegar, saba also lends itself to very different uses, either with sweet or savoury dishes. An example from past times, it was used to enhance the flavour of polenta, to dip fried dumplings (gnocco fritto) in or combined with cheese. Sometimes it was also used to give more flavour to the so-called "weak wines".

Just like balsamic vinegar, according to tradition, saba also offers various benefits for physical well-being. For example, it can be used against heartburn, in milk instead of honey to heal sore throats or as a food supplement due to its mineral salt content.

How to use it in the Kitchen

Even today, the Saba is a very versatile condiment suitable for original combinations and uses in creative contemporary cuisine, both with sweet or savoury dishes. In addition to dairy products and soft and blue cheeses such as ricotta, robiola and gorgonzola, Saba is also excellent as a condiment for salads or vegetables or for marinating white meats such as turkey or preparing sauces and reductions with a delicate sweet and sour flavour. Its sweetness makes it also suitable in combination with the fat and strong taste of some cold cuts.  Finally, it is excellent as a topping for ice cream and frozen yoghurt, for baked fruit and fruit salads or to garnish panna cotta and pancakes, as well as in the traditional preparation of typical regional desserts that require it.

Finding it is not so easy because it is a particular condiment requiring a long production process and enjoying less fame and prestige than Balsamic Vinegar. However, there are producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar that market it, such as Acetaia Leonardi which has dedicated a complete line inspired by the Emilian tradition to this sweet syrup with limitless functions in the kitchen.

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