Traditional Balsamic Vinegar – How Mothers in Modena Fit Out Their Daughters with a Dowry
I was very lucky to be able to organise a visit to one of the few approved producers and get a good understanding of this magical liquid and how it is made. Modena was Pavarotti’s home town, so at thebottom of this post there is a clip of his famous Nessun Dorma to listen to as you browse through.
If you are thinking of setting up an acetaia you will need to take into account the very considerable barriers to entry involved in such a venture. However you look at it, it’s a long term business. Many of the barrels used in the process are over 100 years old because juniper for example is a protected wood and no longer available.
Then the minimum time the liquid must spend in barrels is 15 years – quite a long time to have to wait for a return on investment. It’s no surprise that many acetaias are set up by mothers whose aim is to fit out their daughters with a dowry. As it’s Mothers’ Day today it seems an well-timed subject for a post.
The Acetaia di Giorgio is located in a private villa in a leafy suburb of Modena. Make no mistake, this is a whole artisan product with nothing mass produced about it. There is no similarity whatsoever with the watery liquid found commonly in supermarkets or on restaurant tables. The real McCoy is always dark, syrupy and so bursting with rich flavour that you can lick it with relish direct from the spoon.
Conditions for the production of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is another of those products which is very strictly controlled in order to earn its DOP. There are a number of conditions which must be fulfilled.
- The vinegar can only be made with grape juice – not wine, not skin, no pips
- Unlike industrial vinegar which often has added sugar and other flavouring it cannot have anything added
- It must be aged a minimum of twelve years. Much is aged for 25 years or more
- It must be made within the clearly designated Modena or Reggio Emilia area
- It must be made either with red Lambrusco grapes, or with white Trebbiana grapes, or a mix of both. Whatever combination of grapes is used, the final vinegar will be a deep, dark brown. There is no such thing as a white aceto balsamico tradizionale. Anything labelled ‘white balsamic vinegar’ has probably been made with white wine, not grape juice.
- Only barrels made of six specified woods may be used, and this wood must come from the designated area
The vinegar is matured under the eaves
The first thing that hit me as I entered the house was the pungent, all-pervading smell of the vinegar even though it is all stored up in the attics.
The vinegar has to be stored there and the limited storage space is a constraining factor on production quantity. The reason for this is that the vinegar needs the heat of the eaves to evaporate in the summer, and the cold of the eaves in the winter for the re-barrelling and bottling process.
It’s made only from grape juice
The Barbieri family, which owns the Acetaia di Giorgio is able to ensure that the grapes used to make the vinegar are grown organically because it also cultivates its own vineyards some fifteen minutes drive out of Modena.
In September the grapes are threshed for the sole purpose of obtaining the juice. The collected juice is cooked for about ten hours until it achieves the required sugar content. The temperature is vigilantly kept below 90°C to ensure that no flavour is lost. Because the sugar content remains a constant, all years are consistent – there is no such thing as a good or a bad vintage when it comes to balsamic vinegar.
How Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is matured
The mosta cotta is then put into large barrels known as ‘mother’ barrels for three to five years. The term ‘mother’ is nothing to do with the live ‘mother’ used in the manufacture of wine vinegar, it simply indicates the size of the barrel.
A small amount of vinegar is left in these barrels but the rest is moved to a battery of barrels where the real aging process occurs. Each battery is comprised of a set of five to eight barrels of reducing size, the new vinegar being first put into the largest and then slowly moved over the years into smaller and smaller barrels. 40-50% of the contents of the barrel remains on each move in order to maintain consistency of quality.
Flavour differences come from the wood the barrels are made of. The only wood permitted is mulberry, ash, chestnut, cherry, juniper and oak; the last three providing the most interesting and distinctive flavours (see ‘how to use’ at the bottom of this post for more information).
All the barrels are left open on the top (they are laid on their side) in order to allow the oxidisation and evaporation process to occur. An old-fashioned white cotton crocheted cloth is placed over the opening to prevent flies falling into the barrel.
After the requisite twelve years in the barrel battery the vinegar is sent to the Consortium to have its viscosity checked. If it is not sufficiently thick and the quality not yet acceptable it is sent back to spend more time stored in the barrel. The quality is checked by five ‘master tasters’ who gives scores for observation, smell and taste. If the vinegar is accepted by the tasters it remains at the Consortium; only the consortium is permitted to bottle.
The bottling process
In addition to bottling the Consortium also puts on a white foil top for a 12 year old vinegar or a gold top for a vinegar aged 25 years or more. The Consortium also puts on the back label. Only the front label is put on by the producer. Every bottle has a number and is fully traceable.
The vinegar is only bottled to satisfy demand. Once bottled it doesn’t continue to age but its natural acidity enables it to last indefinitely. If you find an expiry date it’s only because, by law in Italy, all foodstuffs have a maximum lifetime of ten years.
The labels and tops
The label cannot specify the exact number of years a vinegar has been aged (in fact it’s illegal to do so). This is because the mixing of the vinegars in the barrels makes this impossible. Balsamic vinegar is not like whisky which is simply put into barrels and left there until the bottling process.
The Acetaia di Georgio has 460 barrels stored in six rooms. It produces two thousand 100ml bottles every year on average. The Barbieri family is one of 48 producers in Modena. Producers in the designated Reggio Emilia region have their own separate consortium which uses different shaped bottles.
Uses of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
Balsamic vinegar was originally created as a medicine (the definition of ‘balsam’ is an aromatic substance used as a base for medical preparations) and some people still have a couple of teaspoons a day at the end of meal as a digestif.
12 year old vinegar can be used on its own as a salad dressing – you only need a couple of teaspoons.
Or you can spoon it over an omelette.
If the vinegar has been matured in cherrywood, although the acidity will be exactly the same as that matured in other woods, the taste is sweeter and smoother and it will match well with peaches, figs and strawberries.
An older vinegar which is more viscous, complex and full-bodied will go down well on a steak – but don’t allow the vinegar to heat up or you will undo in five minutes what has taken 20 years to achieve.
Juniper-only matured, and cherry-only matured vinegar is only made by the Acetaia di Georgio. The juniper-only matured is more spicy and peppery than other types of vinegar and it works well with a strongly-flavoured fish such as tuna, or with game.
The acetaia also produces a vinegar first barrelled in 1986 to celebrate the birth of Carlotta, Giorgio and Giovanna’s daughter. This vinegar is produced in a mixed battery of cherry, chestnut and oak barrels and it pairs well with foie gras (the mind boggles), duck, panna cotta and vanilla ice cream (for heaven’s sake, if you are using something as special as this vinegar either make your own (easy) ice cream, or make sure you buy really good quality ice cream – read this to ensure you avoid the worst).
The acetaia also produces a superiore grade vinegar which is matured in oak casks for more than 25 years. It’s accepted that oak produces the best balanced vinegar, with an unmistakable smoky vanilla taste which goes particularly well with truffles (again, the mind boggles).
Needless to say this traditional balsamic vinegar is not cheap. A 100ml bottle of 12 year old vinegar might cost about €60 while one matured over more than 25 years would be more than double the price. It’s not surprising that it’s only used by a couple of handfuls of restaurants worldwide – almost all in either Singapore or Australia.
For a post on apple balsamic vinegar, follow this link.
for a post on how sherry is made – very similar – follow this link.
Music to listen to as you read
Here is Pavarotti, a son of Modena, singing Nessun Dorma