Balsamic vinegar of Modena is one of edible treasures of Emilia-Romagna. Visiting local producers that has been making aceto balsamico di Modena for centuries on a custom Italy vacation is a fascinating experience for any Italophile and foodie alike.
The origins of the ancient tradition can be traced back to the 11th century. Local nobles often used the prized vinegar as a royal gift. In the old days, many families, aristocratic and ordinary mortals, made their own vinegar following the ancient recipes for mostly domestic use. Today, there are 80 producers in the area and the production process is strictly regulated by a consortium and has both D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and D.O.P. (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) designations.
Balsamic vinegar is made from grape juice obtained from Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes traditionally cultivated in the province of Modena. The must is cooked simmering slowly for several hours over an open flame until it is reduced by at least a half. After that, it is placed in high quality wooden barrels and placed in the aging room, normally in a warm attic. When visiting an acetaia (a place where they make vinegar) on a custom Italy vacation, you will be able to appreciate the air thick with the aroma of the balsamic vinegar in the aging room. The barrels are different size and made from various types of wood: oak, mulberry, chestnut, cherry.
As the vinegar ages it evaporates and is transferred to smaller casks. Every year, a few litres of the precious brown liquid from the smallest barrel are bottled and the rest is topped up with the vinegar from the next one in size with the largest cask being filled with new season’s yield. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is aged for a minimum of 12 years and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena “Extra Vecchio” (Extra Old) is bottled after a minimum of 25 years. No wonder it can sell for as much as $200 an ounce!
The older balsamic vinegar is the more complex its flavour becomes after having developed its distinctive notes and absorbed the aromas of the wood. Just a few drops of aceto balsamico can turn a grilled steak or a bowl of strawberries into a culinary triumph!
Photos via FLickr by: Scott Ashkenaz, Valerie Hinojosa.