The most profound impression that the food here in Italy has had on me is entirely related to the quality of the ingredients, and the strict adherence to tradition when it comes to maintaining that quality. In a lot of ways, Italian food, in my opinion, is misunderstood. If you don't believe me, just read How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani. He meticulously chronicles the journey of "Italian" food to America, and throughout the world, and the misconceptions and liberties that have been taken along the way to create a hybrid Italian-American genre of food that in many ways is completely unrecognizable as Italian, but that has captured the hearts and appetites of a nation. In an effort to learn as much as possible about these authentic, artisan ingredients, Michael and I took a little field trip to Modena to visit Acetaia Villa San Donnino for a tour of their grounds and to learn how they produce their Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. We had a great time, and we were so impressed with the great care and pride that they have for their wonderful product.
Balsamic Vinegar seems to be misunderstood in that same way as a lot of other Italian cuisine. We all know the Balsamic Vinegar that is available in the supermarket, and is served up on salads, and in many other cooking applications. The first thing to know about Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, the real thing, is that it is exactly that- traditional. The Balsamic vinegar at the grocery store is made up of mostly wine vinegar, along with various other additives, coloring, and of course, sugar. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is made up of one ingredient: cooked grape juice. It can be from either white or red grapes, usually Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes. No alcohol- just freshly picked, squeezed, and filtered grape juice straight from the vineyard that is cooked immediately in order to prevent the fermentation process from starting. The cooked juice is then aged in wooden barrels, which give the resulting product its characteristic color, as well as depth of flavor. The flavor of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is much more smooth, mellow, and slightly sweet in comparison to the bitterness of the grocery store variety.
The aging process for Traditional Balsamic Vinegar hasn't changed in generations. In fact, in order to produce Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, you must have your product and aging process monitored and reviewed by a consortium of Balsamic experts who must approve your product, and then the consortium bottles it in their approved bottles, and then they're returned for labeling from each individual producer, or acetaia, as they're called. Every producer of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar has to have their product bottled by the consortium, and all of the bottles are the exact same. One size, one shape, and it has been that way for many years. The consortium originally had their bottles designed by a gentlemen named Giorgetto Giugiaro who is an automotive designer who has designed for Ferrari, Maserati, and others. They have stayed with his bottle design ever since. (His bottles are on the top shelf with the gold foil and orange boxes in the photo below.)
The aging process is the most important part of what qualifies a Balsamic Vinegar as Traditional. Traditional Balsamic Vinegars of Modena must be made of cooked grapes (red or white, depending on the producer's preference), and then be aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years, or a minimum of 25 years for the "Extravecchio", or "very old" qualification. Those are the only two types of Traditional Balsamic Vinegars of Modena. Both are made and aged in the same way, but one is aged for much longer.
Each batch of Traditional Balsamic starts out with the cooked juice being poured into a sequence of at least 5 barrels, up to 12 barrels of graduated sizes. Every year during the aging process, there is a certain amount of evaporation that takes place. To account for the evaporation, some of the juice from the second smallest barrel is poured into the smallest barrel, and so on and so forth, always filling the smallest barrel. At the end of the aging process, whether it be 12 or 25 years, the product in the smallest barrel is what is presented to the consortium for approval and bottling. As you can imagine, it takes an incredible amount of time and care to produce just a small amount of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar.
Acetaia Villa San Donnino in Modena, Italy is where we took our tour, and they also offer a line of Balsamic Vinegars that are aged for at least 6 years, which is not long enough to qualify for "Traditional" status, but yields a very similar depth of flavor, just not quite as complex and developed as the traditionals. Truthfully, the 6 year variety was my preference as far as taste goes. It was somewhere in the middle as far as sweetness and strength, and Michael agreed. There are two varieties of the 6 year Balsamic Vinegars from Acetaia San Donnino, a dark-colored one, "Nerone", that is prepared and aged exactly the same as the traditional, and a "Bianco" variety, which is made of white grapes (nearly all of the Balsamic at Acetaia San Donnino is made of white grapes-the color comes from the wooden barrels.) but is aged in stainless steel barrels to avoid the darker color. They first came up with the "Bianco" variety by request of several local chefs who wanted to be able to use Balsamic to flavor their foods without covering up the appearance of their dishes, especially with fish and other light-colored, delicate preparations.
When using Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, it is important to keep in mind how it was made. You should never cook it, as the heating process will destroy the flavor. It is best used for "finishing" a dish by drizzling it over cooked meats, fish, salad, fruit, or even ice cream!
We ended up purchasing a bottle of the Nerone and the Bianco, and we're excited to put them to good use. If you would like to purchase some of their wonderful products, you can do so on their website. They gladly ship worldwide, so fortunately we'll be able to get ore once we run out of what we bought.
P.S. This is not a sponsored post. I just like to learn about food and share what I learn with you. Acetaia Villa San Donnino has in no way compensated me for this post. In fact, they have no idea that this blog exists. My thoughts and opinions are my own, as always.