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A Little Bit of Italy Comes to the Big Island

January 25, 2016, 5:15 PM HST
* Updated September 8, 11:40 AM
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Photo credit: Marla Walters.

Photo credit: Marla Walters.

Somewhere between the Coconut Lime and the Fig balsamic vinegar tasting spoons, I knew I was hooked.  Who knew vinegar could be so delicious?

Tamar Gilson is a woman on a mission, and it’s not just to sell her line of balsamic vinegars.  “This business was born out of diversity.  It’s a labor of love and a health mission for me.”

Her enthusiasm for her products is infectious.  Her business, Hawai’i Balsamics, produces infused balsamic vinegars in Big Island flavors, including Coconut Lime, Spicy Mango, and Chocolate Raspberry, to name a few.

Balsamic vinegar isn’t a product one would associate with Hawai’i, however. Gilson recounted that a trip to Italy with her sister was a revelation.  After sampling Italian balsamic vinegars, she realized the Big Island’s flavor profile would lend itself exceptionally well to the balsamics.

Gilson began infusing her line of balsamic vinegars four years ago.  Shortly after starting the business, she was diagnosed with cancer.  As part of her journey to wellness, she became fascinated with the use of balsamic vinegars, in that they do not contain chemicals, artificial ingredients, added sugar, or salt.

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“When I started using balsamics, I was seeking to take better care of my body,” Gilson said. “I knew I needed to take better care in choosing what I ate. “

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Happily, three years later, Gilson is cancer-free; she says her diet has significantly improved. Spurred by her personal success, she says that “If only one person can better even a small portion of their diet, perhaps they will be spared health issues they might have otherwise faced, and I may have done some good in the world.”

True balsamics, as it turns out, are only produced in Italy.  Gilson explained that the process of making the vinegar is very lengthy, taking a minimum of twelve years.  It is produced in Modena, in the region of Reggio Emilia, and made with Trebbiano grapes.   The grape “must” (crushed grapes) is cooked; duration and temperature determines blond versus traditional dark balsamic.  The syrup then must age and be transferred through five different types of barrels over the twelve years.  Gilson tells me hers are really special, though, as they go through seven types of wooden barrels over that 12 years.  This makes for the very rich flavor.  She only uses 25-Star vinegars, which assure that the greater amount of high-quality aged balsamic vinegar must have been used in the production – and thus the greater overall quality of the product.

When you visit her booths at the Maku’u or Hilo Farmer’s Markets, you will see tasting spoons lined up, each with a droplet of the various vinegars.  It is dark brown and glossy, resembling a thick syrup. The tastes are very complex.  If you are a “foodie,” your cooking creativity will be sent into overdrive.  I began to envision fresh strawberries with Chocolate Raspberry, or a grilled pork chop drizzled with Fig (one of my favorites). Gilson’s balsamics do not have a strong acidity, but rather a mellow tartness.

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What is her biggest challenge right now?  “Keeping up with demand,” Gilson responds.  Very popular are the Coconut Lime, Habanero Mango, and Lilikoi.  Since she works in small batches, it takes time.

It’s hot and crowded at both markets, but Gilson doesn’t seem to notice, as she extols the virtues of vinegar to customers.  Husband Ben cheerfully helps out.  He jokes that he’s her “slave,” but she counters: “He’s my rock, helper, and the love of my life for 28 years…and has been beside me every step of the way.”

You can find Hawai’i Balsamics at the Hilo Farmer’s Market on Wednesday and Saturday.  On Sundays, they are at the Maku’u Farmer’s Market.  Products are also available in Kona at the Kona Wine Market and Island Naturals.

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