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Few foods are so precious, so concentrated and so exquisitely flavorful that they can be tasted on a doll-size china spoon and still provide an unforgettable gastronomic experience. The finest beluga caviar comes to mind—a clutch of tiny eggs, crushed by the tongue against the palate, fills the head with flavor. So too the real Italian Balsamic vinegar, aceto balsamico tradizionale.
In recent years, mass-produced "balsamic vinegar" has flooded menus, dousing everything from salads to swordfish to sushi. Ninety percent of its fans, though, have never tasted the real thing. They're hooked on the look-alike: easy to find and a fraction of the price. But commercially made wine vinegar—boosted with food coloring, caramel, and artificial flavoring—will never rival the complexity of cooked must (grape juice) barrel-aged for decades in Modena farmhouse attics. For the where of this extraordinary artifact is as crucial to the end result as the what and the how.
Modena is at the heart of northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, long celebrated for its prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and handmade pastas. Handmade balsamic vinegar, Modena's culinary trump card, is considered an elixir, a digestif, even an aphrodisiac. It is so much a part of local gastronomic and cultural heritage that in 1967 the Spilamberto Consorteria, a nonprofit association of private vinegar producers, expert tasters, and enthusiasts, was set up to keep the custom alive.
"When the air raid warnings went off here in town during the Second World War," an elderly man in a bar in Modena recounted, "I rushed upstairs to our attic and brought down our family's best barrel of vinegar. I strapped it onto my bicycle and rode as fast as I could out into the countryside. It was the most valuable thing we had, and I had to save it."
In Modena it was (and still is) customary among families with means to start a new battery—or series—of vinegar barrels at the birth of a child. And it wasn't unusual for a daughter to take hers as a dowry when she married. There are even documented cases, dating back to the 1500s, of Modenese bequeathing batteries of vinegar in their wills.
"Aceto balsamico has a long history," explains Franco Satrioni, a sprightly older gentleman and member of the Spilamberto Conserteria. "The Dukes of Este, the mighty landowners here for whom Modena was court, were very partial to vinegars, and we believe they had a version of balsamico as early as 1747." In 1792, Ercole III, Duke of Modena, sent a present of a vial described as aceto balsamico to Archduke Francis I of Austria on his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. "If we are to believe the records, these vinegars were aged for exceptionally long periods: In 1863, the noble Carandini family won first prize at an agricultural fair with a balsamico said to be 360 years old." Satrioni seems delighted at the thought.
Driving out of Modena into its flat, cultivated countryside of orchards and vineyards, you would never guess that the majority of the farmhouse attics you see are filled with barrels of balsamic vinegar. Once the dominion of the Dukes of Este, the fertile Po Valley and its flanking hills now constitute the Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or D.O.P., of traditional balsamic vinegar. Like laws governing European wine making, the D.O.P. protects a product's name (the use of the word "tradizionale" in this case) and provenance (the genuine article must be produced in Modena or Reggio Emilia). Further protection exists in the form of two consortia, one in Modena and one in Reggio Emilia, which subject all traditional balsamic vinegar to stringent quality controls.
"We have over a hundred members," explained Marco Costanzini, secretary of the Modena consortium. "Forty of them bottle and sell their products." The consortium was born in 1979 out of a necessity to safeguard the commercial interests of the local balsamic vinegar. "We realized very late that the image of our precious balsamico was being ruined by the cheap industrial vinegars bearing its name," he said. The consortium had spent years and billions of lire defending true balsamico's identity, "but it was like David fighting Goliath," said Costanzini. In 1983 the consortium won the exclusive right to put the word "Modena" on its labels, but found that it was unable to block the use of the words "aceto balsamico" or "balsamic vinegar" by industrial producers.
The problem for consumers remained: How could they tell which balsamic vinegar was the real thing? "The only answer was for us to guarantee our own balsamico tradizionale by testing and bottling it ourselves," Costanzini explained, "in a format that every informed consumer could recognize." The result was the round-bodied 100-milliliter bottle created by industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (who also designed the Lexus car).
Here's how it works. Any Modena consortium member wanting to sell vinegar must have it pass a blind taste test by a panel of five master tasters. Only then is it bottled, with one of two "capsules" (the capsule cloaks the cork, much like a wine foil): white for vinegars aged at least 12 years and gold for the extravecchio, or vintage, vinegars of over 25 years of age. "This way we can ensure that every vinegar bottled by us has been tasted and approved by our panel," said Costanzini. The Reggio Emilia consortium, on the other hand, uses circular labels to identify its more elongated, contoured 100-milliliter bottles: red for vintages at least 12 years of age, silver for those 18 years or older, and gold for 25 years and up. (See "Buying and Using Vintage Balsamic.")
I had my first taste of one of the Modena consortium's vinegars in the esteemed acetaia, or vinegar works, of Erika Barbieri, who runs the company with her father, Eugenio. I held my tiny ceramic spoon level as 26-year-old Erika upended a small bulbous bottle and poured the syrupy mass—or, rather, waited for it to shift and slowly drop down. It was as thick as molasses but less stringy, and formed a shiny ebony drop. I sniffed it to get a first impression, then put it in my mouth: Immediately it released a warm explosion of sweet and tart sensations, with an elegant bouquet of harmonious spiciness.
"This vinegar is well over twenty-five years old," she said, smiling as she saw my reaction, for that single drop was still working on me. "Come upstairs and I'll show you how it is made." I followed her up to the attic rooms, each filled with neat rows of small, black-stained wooden barrels in descending order of size.
"These oval barrels were my great-grandfather's," she says. "And the vinegar in some of them is over a century old. For us they are a treasure."
"To make the traditional aceto balsamico," explains Lorenzo Righi, a talented young producer who was visiting Erika, "you need healthy sweet grapes; barrels of different sizes and types of wood; an attic where the vinegar will feel the heat of summer and the cold of winter; and most importantly, a great deal of care and patience."
The grapes—usually white Trebbiano and/or black Lambrusco—are picked in late September or October when sugar content is very high (the grapes are almost raisins by then) and pressed to extract the must. Instead of being fermented and made into wine, this must is cooked very gently over direct heat for at least 18 hours, or until it reduces in volume by a third or more. Once cool, the reduction, known as mosto cotto, is transferred to large barrels, where it undergoes a natural fermentation process for some months—sometimes helped along by the addition of a small amount of finished balsamic vinegar. "The must is the fundamental difference between our vinegar and all the others," continues Lorenzo. "Ours never contains wine vinegar." In making wine vinegar, grape must is first allowed to ferment, which produces wine, and then pushed into a second fermentation by the addition of vinegar bacteria. The result is far more astringent than the slowly aged must of true balsamic vinegar.
The must is now ready to be matured by a method similar to the Solera blending system used in making sherry and Marsala wines. "The classic battery," says Erika, "consists of from five to twelve barrels of different woods—chestnut, juniper, cherry, oak, mulberry, locust, ash—each of which confers a unique set of flavors." In the first year, each barrel is three quarters filled with the cooked must, after which the hole at its top is loosely covered with a linen cloth to admit oxygen.
"After one year, the liquid level in the smallest barrel has dropped due to evaporation. So we top it up to three quarters full again with vinegar from the next biggest barrel." That barrel's level is now low, so it is topped up from the next barrel, and so on, until the last barrel is filled with the new season's mosto cotto. After 12 years of repeating these operations once a year, the smallest barrel will have been fed with vinegars that have passed through each of the other barrels. This makes it technically impossible to pinpoint the age of the vinegar within, which is why no specific age is ever given on the label of traditional balsamic vinegar. The closest the Modena consortium comes to an age declaration is to refer to a vinegar as being "at least 12 years old" or "at least 25 years old."
"The vinegar acquires its complexity, character, and mellowness from maturing in all these woods," explains Righi, "which give a well-balanced taste to the final product." The vinegar for bottling is taken from the smallest barrel, and even then, only ten percent at most of its liquid is removed each year. Indeed, even at a large vinegar producer's, only three to four percent of the aging vinegar will be bottled each year. It takes 70 liters of uncooked must to produce one liter of 25-year-old balsamico, which is why so little costs so much.
Each June the Consorteria hosts the Palio di San Giovanni, at which the year's best vinegar is chosen. It is open to producers big and small; last year almost one thousand entries were sampled. In a blind tasting, the vinegars are judged by a large panel of master tasters. To be a finalist or winner of the Palio is the most prestigious achievement possible for a balsamic vinegar maker, the reward for a lifetime of work in the attic, adjusting and nurturing their sweet-and-sour creations.
I was honored with a taste of last year's winner, which is kept under lock and key in an antique wardrobe in the Consorteria's model vinegar-making facility. A glass jar that might have held candy was ceremoniously opened, and a tiny spoonful of the concentrated substance within was offered to me. It was sleek, black, and as dense as jam, and produced an intensity of taste sensations that was hard to believe. It's not often we get to sample a food nearly 50 years old that is still going strong.
It was a rainy Saturday morning in May, and as we stood in the Consorteria'sattic discussing the mysteries of balsamic vinegar, a middle-aged woman appeared at the door, a little out of breath from the climb. From a small blue plastic bag she produced a tiny bottle of her "mother-in-law's best" vinegar, to enter in the Palio. "This is our first time," she admitted, "but we think it's quite good. It is several years old now, and we have already tried it on strawberries—it's absolutely delicious."
As she swirled the amber liquid in her jar, even I could see at a glance that this vinegar was far too young to stand a chance against the venerable old-timers. Satrioni—a former Palio winner himself—was gentle but firm: "Signora," he said with an encouraging smile, "you are on the right track. Come back in fifteen years and we will try again."
Buying & Using Vintage Balsamic
The only balsamic vinegars that carry guarantees of quality and age are those endorsed by the consortiums of Modena (white or gold capsule) and Reggio Emilia (red, silver, or gold label).
These contain no wine vinegar, sugar, caramel, or artificial colors or flavorings, and have passed a stringent taste test. Use them to enhance a sauce, complement grilled meat, fish, or game, or as an accompaniment to cheese, salad, or fruit. A few drops is all it takes for these intense liquids to release their full bouquets. They go with everything from foie gras to lobster, chicken to eggs, raspberries to cheese. Or try a thimbleful as an apéritif.
Here is a guide to the different vintages, which come in distinctive 100 ml bottles: WHITE CAPSULE and RED LABEL (about $75-$125) Aged for at least 12 years. These young, dark-amber vinegars offer an immediate explosion of sweet and tart sensations. Acidity is long but never aggressive, and is tempered by the grape's sweetness and a distinct character from the wooden barrels. SILVER LABEL (about $100) At least 18 years old. A bit sweeter than the red label, but less dense than the gold. Particularly good with cheeses, especially aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve bite-sized chunks topped with a few drops of this spicy, dark vinegar.
GOLD CAPSULE and GOLD LABEL (about $125-$170) At least 25 years of age. A few drops of these dense, deep-brown yet brilliantly clear and syrupy nectars will thickly coat a china spoon. Their scents are inviting: mellow, warm, complex, and full, with more sweetness to the tongue than acidity. You can taste the decades of subtle extracts from the woods: sweet and warm from the cherry, spicy and almost incense-like from the juniper. Combined with the grape berries' sugars, it's a harmonious flavor with soft acidity. Use a few drops to dress vanilla ice cream or strawberries.
SOURCES: DEAN & DELUCA (flagship), 560 Broadway, New York; 212-226-6800; www.deandeluca.com • A.G. FERRARI FOODS: 877-878-2783; www.agferrari.com • CORTI BROTHERS: 5810 Folsom Boulevard; Sacramento, California; 916-736-3800 or 800-509-3663 • SALUMERIA ITALIANA: 151 Richmond Street; Boston, Massachusetts 02109; 617-523-8743; www.salumeriaitaliana.com • ZINGERMAN'S: 422 Detroit Street; Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104; 888-636-8162; www.zingermans.com.
True balsamic vinegar hails from Modena or Reggio Emilia, both located in the gastronomically rich Emilia-Romagna region. A stone's throw from the Maserati and Ferrari factories, Modena is a well-heeled and highly walkable city that hosts an annual balsamic vinegar extravaganza ("Balsamica," May 11—June 2 this year). Fifteen miles away, handsome Reggio Emilia offers Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, galleries and antiques shops, and delicious local fare such as cappellitti (a ravioli with beef, ham, and pork) and tortelli di zucca (pumpkin tortelli).
WHERE TO STAY
CANALGRANDE HOTEL An historic four-star hotel in central Modena in a frescoed 16th-century villa. 6 Corso Canalgrande; 059-217-160; 059-221-674; www.canalgrandehotel.it.
RECHIGI PARK HOTEL A four-star hotel in a restructured country villa that's on the outskirts of Modena. 1581 Via Emilia Est; 059-283-600; fax 059-283-910; www.rechigiparkhotel.it.
HOTEL REAL FINI A newly refurbished hotel dating from the 1970s located just outside Modena's center. 441 Via Emilia Est; 059-2051-511; fax 059-364-804; www.hotelrealfini.it.
HOTEL POSTA A handsome 13th-century palace in the center of Reggio Emilia that's now a comfortable four-star hotel. One of the owner's sons makes traditional balsamic vinegar, which is sold at the hotel. 2 Piazza del Monte; 0522-432-944; fax 0522-452-602; www.hotelposta.re.it.
WHERE TO EAT
These restaurants have marvelous food and use traditional balsamic vinegars:
AMBASCIATA Located approximately 30 miles outside of Modena, but well worth the trip for the extravagant decor and extraordinary cuisine. 33 Via Martilidi Belfiore, Quistello (MN); 0376-619-169.
CUCINA DEL MUSEO Good traditional rustic cooking in a small dining room. 7 Via S. Agostino, Modena; 059-217-429.
EUROPA '92 RISTORANTE Rustic but elegant restaurant owned by Luciano Pavarotti and popular with his cosmopolitan friends. Good local food. 8 Stradello Nava, Modena; 059-460-067.
RISTORANTE LA NOCE Charming country restaurant in the hills near Modena. Fine home cooking. 9764 Via Giardini Nord, in Montagnana di Serramazzoni (MO) (near Maranello); 0536-957-174; www.lanoce.it.
OSTERIA FRANCESCANA Accomplished modernist Emilian cuisine in central Modena. 22 Via Stella; 059-210-118.
RISTORANTE FINI Refined, elegant restaurant of the formal kind, but the decor is a bit dated now. 54 Rua Frati, Modena; 059-223-314.
SPECIALTY FOOD SHOPPING IN MODENA
SALUMERIA HOSTERIA GIUSTI Excellent specialty foods. Also has a few tables serving traditional cuisine. 75 Via Farini; 059-222-533.
PASTICCERIA SAN GIORGIO Great pastries and balsamic vinegar. 6 Via Taglio; 059-223-514.
LA TORTERIA DI TAMARA VALENTI Delectable cakes and coffee. 14 Via F. Selmi; 059-221-146.
PASTIFICIO IL CHICCO D'ORO Fresh egg pasta. 27/a Via F. Selmi; 059-218-216.
COVERED MARKET A colorful market with many wonderful stalls, including Gastronomia Fratelli Manzini, which sells traditional balsamic vinegar. 13/a Via Albinelli; 059-243-009.
Most balsamic vinegar is produced in farmhouses outside of town. Visits by appointment only:
ACETAIA FERDINANDO CAVALLI 6/ab Via del Cristo, Fellegara di Scandiano, (RE); 0522-983-430.
ACETAIA PEDRONI 2 Via Risaia, Rubbiara di Nonantola (MO); 059-549-019; www.acetaiapedroni.com.
AZIENDA AGRICOLA GALLI452 Via Albareto, Modena; 059-251-094.
ACETAIA DEL CRISTO (ERIKA BARBIERI)41 Via Badia, San Prospero (MO); 059-330-383.
ANTICA ACETAIA LA SECCHIA (LORENZO RIGHI) 171 Via F. Ghiaroni, Modena; 059-300-331.
ACETAIA MALPIGHI 20 Via Barca, San Donnino (MO); 059-465-063.
AZIENDA AGRICOLA SAN GEMINIANO 4 Via San Geminiano, Montericco di Albinea (RE); 0522-599-807.
FOR THE ARDENT COOK
The International Cooking School of Italian Food and Wine, in Bologna's historic center, offers hands-on cooking courses in English that include visits to vinegar producers. For more information: 212-779-1921; fax 212-779-3248; www.marybethclark.com.
CONSORTERIA DELL'ACETO BALSAMICO TRADIZIONALE DI SPILAMBERTO 28 Via Roncati, Spilamberto (MO); 059-785-959; www.balsamico-tradizionale.it.
CONSORZIO TRA PRODUTTORI DI ACETO BALSAMICO TRADIZIONALE DI MODENA 60 Corso Cavour, Modena; 059-242-565.
CONSORZIO FRA PRODUTTORI DI ACETO BALSAMICO TRADIZIONALE DI REGGIO EMILIA 1 Piazza Vittoria, Reggio Emilia; 0522-796-294.
Carla Capalbo is the author of The Food and Wine Lover's Companion to Tuscany (Chronicle Books).