Put down that caramel-colored watery condiment known as balsamic vinegar of Modena & try the real deal! (And trust me whatever you’re using, no matter what you spent, ‘aint this!)
Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena D.O.P. is like nothing you’ve ever tasted, a thick sweet syrup that must be aged for at least 12 years before it can be bottled, it’s almost a pity to call it vinegar. With the first taste on your tongue, there comes an epiphany of what balsamic should taste like- an explosion of complex woody flavors (cherry, juniper) low in acidity and surprisingly fruity. Which then begs the question… what have I been eating for all these years?? Unlike ordinary vinegar which has its origins as a by-product of an alcoholic liquid, balsamic vinegar is produced directly from concentrated grape juice.
Jason & I recently returned after six years to visit Acetaia di Giorgio in Modena, a large manor house that has been the home for vinegar makers & their barrels for hundreds of years. In 2006 it was a very special stop on our honeymoon that left a lasting impression, not only for their inspirational family-run artisan operation, warm-hearted hospitality but also the lingering flavor of the most amazing balsamic either one of us had ever tasted.
We were welcomed like old family-friends by the proud wife of Giorgio, Giovanna for a tasting of balsamic vinegar in their attic. Our noses twitched as we climbed the stairs, the sweet smell of balsamic awaking our senses immediately. Warming the balsamic in the bottle with her hands, Giovanna lovingly explains to us the details of making traditional balsamic vinegar & how in a family of artisan vinegar makers, this is life as usual. Life like only 59 others know it. (There is a grand total of 60 certified DOP artisans of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena!)
She passionately explains how the two types of grapes used; white trebbiano and red lambrusco are crushed and their liquid or ‘must’ is boiled, reducing it by 50%. Then the liquid is placed in a series of barrels made of different types of wood (juniper, cherry, oak, ash) and continues to concentrate in the attic of their home for years to come. Giorgio begins with about 150 liters of grape must that will be slowly reduced & concentrated to not even 3 liters over the next 12 years.
To be DOP certified a ‘expert taste tester’ will make a house call to sample your product, but only after it has matured for 12 years and 25 years for the extra-vecchio , literally the extra-old. These expert tasters will guarantee the quality of the product by allowing the vinegar maker to use the distinctive 100ml bottle designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro to bottle their traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. This unique bottle is literally the “Seal of Quality” that it has been produced in accordance to the rules, regulations & traditional procedures of the official Consortium. Only balsamic vinegar bottled in these bottles is considered the real-deal, acteo balsamico tradizionale di Modena D.O.P. – nothing else. The impostors arrive lining the shelves in many other fancy bottles too, but don’t be fooled! There is only one.
For the tasting, Giovanna pours droplets of thick black syrup into teaspoons. As the first spoonful coats your tongue and you begin to swallow, breathing in all the complexities, you know you are in for a treat! Giorgio & Giovanna produce 8 different varieties of balsamic vinegars, some are finished in cherry wood & perfect with salads, fruits or light cheeses or others finished in juniper wood lend themselves better to lamb, game, meat. But before we taste the extra vecchio (which could be served as a digestivo, it’s just that good!) we must cleanse our palate & eat it with chunks of parmesano regiano. Ah yes, they compliment each other perfectly just like the sister-cities they are.
Giorgio pops in here & there, first to graciously welcome us & then to sneak a peak of our reaction to his hard work. They work well together, reminding me of Jason & I – the bubbly “public relations manager” & the earnest ego-free artisan. But there is nothing Giorgio & Giovanna are more proud of than their daughter Carlotta. In the family tradition of balsamic vinegar makers, they started a series of barrels for her when she was born of her very own vinegar! On this return trip to Modena we were able to sample Carlotta’s namesake a 25 year (extra vecchio) balsamic, it’s wasn’t ready six years ago, so we were eager to try their newest & most prized balsamico.
For Giorgio & Giovanna the future of all their balsamic lies in very capable hands of their daughter, ensuring the family business will continue. Giovanna, the unfaltering Italian mother she is, confides with a smile- “Carlotta will need to find a husband though, a man is necessary in this work. At the very least to move the barrels!”
Now on the complete other end of the spectrum from family-run to commercial, the vinegar needless to say varies in quality. Big business has stolen the name ‘balsamic vinegar of Modena’ giving it little merit in it’s mass production of what is now thought of as a salad condiment & not much more. Read the labels of these commercially produced vinegars, many are made with harsh wine vinegar sweetened with sugar and filled with caramel coloring, preservatives & extracts, not to mention made in just a few hours (not years).
I would say most Italian use a red or white wine vinegar for dressing salads. The traditional balsamic vinegar is meant to ‘finish’ a dish and should never touch the heat of a pan! I would recommend a few drops on-top of steak (with arugula & shaved parmesan it’s out of this world), grilled radicchio, frittata, risotto, on a hunk of parm. or for dessert on fruit or ice cream.
To us, this (this traditional balsamic vinegar & the families producing it) is not only the true meaning of slow food but the core of what we love about Italians and honestly party of why we moved here. It’s the deep rooted family traditions, un-wavering passion for perfection and true artisans (whether it be food, linens, farming, crafts) that draw us to this country & these people, there is something about it that make you want to be part of it. Take for example something as simple as ‘vinegar‘ and how it can be transformed into an exquisite culinary delight with the love & painstaking attention to detail. I will forever associate the flavor of balsamic with Giovanna’s big smile & the smell of their attic surrounded by age-old barrels. There is something about it where it transcends just food…each bottle is alive, rich & flavorful, each spoonful celebrating the traditions of Giorgio & Giovanna’s family and a dying breed of Italian artisans.