True Balsamic Vinegar: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena
Nameless, faceless food. The downfall of modern eating (and drinking).
The remedy? Meeting producers, learning their crafts and stories, and savoring the flavors of the world with appreciation that extends beyond the palette to a deeper gratefulness of heart.
Rossi Barattini’s historic Balsamic Vinegar production house in Modena, Italy
Our series on traditional foods of Northern Italy began with our travels exploring the history of true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Culatello ham. Next up, part two and the juicy details of Italian grapes transformed to the sweetest of vinegars and the noblest of wines…
Once, for a birthday gift, Ted surprised me by arranging for an afternoon off work and pasta making lessons with an old friend, Lee, an Italian transplant living in Canby, Oregon. After three or four hours spent gathering goose eggs from his back yard, dabbling our fingers in imported “00” flour, rolling dough, cutting noodles, and cooking a batch for a grand finale meal, Lee pulled from his kitchen cabinet a dark bottle of vinegar.
“All the way from Italy,” he told us, smiling proudly.
He poured a spoonful and we took a sip: unreal. Absolutely unreal. Not even qualified to share the same title with balsamic vinegar from the grocery store.
Little did I know on that birthday afternoon four years ago that another beautiful spoonful was aging patiently in an attic in Italy, just waiting for Ted and I to arrive and take another unreal sip.
This May, out in rural Modena, Italy, we visited Rossi Barattini’s beautiful Traditional Balsamic Vinegar production to learn about his age old craft.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale was rarely known or consumed outside of its home territory of Emilia-Romagna prior to the 1970s, but in this small corner of the world, families produced their gastronomic delight in wooden barrels handed down through generations, and enjoyed the fine flavors in accompaniment to their daily meals.
Rossi explained the seasonal calendar of his family’s generations-old grape harvest and vinegar production: a twelve to twenty-five year process for each bottle.
Make no mistake, this region’s secret nectar holds little in common with the cheap dyed and flavored, mass produced vinegars of most grocery stores. This isn’t your three dollar bottle of pink juice sweetened with sugar and dolled up with caramel coloing; this is one of Italy’s famed “liquid golds” produced through labor, time, patience, and tradition.
Find the real deal; taste a drop to know the truth.
Rossi harvests Trebbiano di Modena grapes from his family property near the end of September and cooks them down for 15-20 hours to achieve a 40-50% reduction in liquid for a greater concentration of natural sugars.
The cooked down grape juice is barreled and stored in an upstairs attic where seasonal fluctuations in temperature naturally carry the juice through stages of aging.
Barrels are left open, covered only with cloth to allow air to naturally aid the vinegar’s transformation, then winter cold settles in, halting the fermentation process. The following season, when the air warms, Rossi manually transfers the liquid to the next barrel in line.
Rossi’s wooden barrels have been in the family for generations. Some as old as 250 years remain in use to this day, handed down from parents to children several times over.
Over decades, the same batch of aging vinegar trickles through containers of acacia, mulberry, cherry, and juniper, slowly absorbing flavors and tones from the wood and from vintages of years gone by.
It’s almost silly to call the final product vinegar. It’s sweet and rich, a complex syrup of fruit and wood notes fit to be sipped plain from an outstretched spoon or drizzled over the freshest of garden fruits and raw milk cheeses.
It’s a magic potion to transform simple meals of meats or veggies into sensory delights.
Production is strictly monitored by the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, founded in 1979 to protect and promote the product and its heritage. True Acteo Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena D.O.P. can be instantly spotted in signature 100ml round bottles, created by Giorgetto Giugiaro (designer, incidentally, of Italian sportscars, Nikon camera bodies, and Apple computer prototypes).
Upon reaching the 12 year minimum threshold, Balsamico may be bottled and sold as Affinato (“refined”), or aged an additional decade+ to be sold at 25 years as Extravecchio (“extra-old”). As you may imagine, the quarter-century bottles go for a mint: upwards of $100. At that price, after such an investment of time and craft, each drop is valued; not a taste wasted.
Lore goes that many Modenese families began their household Balsamico Tradizionale production upon the birth of a daughter, investing in the sweet gold for dowry upon her eventual marriage.
Rossi had few words when I asked him about the next generation of his family business.
He has three daughters all around the ages of my younger brothers; they’re each going in different directions. The short answer is a smile and shrug. The future is unknown.
He returned to pouring samples of his treasure, that sweet mystery aged in wooden barrels longer than the Class of 2012 university graduates have been alive…
As the flavors mingled and the smiles spread across our faces at the taste of patience rewarded, I wondered about my generation and the men and women needed to continue age old traditions.
Will we care and produce foods sweeter than sugar water, richer than flash-produced and plastic packaged bottles of dye?
Will we farm?
Will we tend?
Will we practice art and diligence?
The unrivaled quality and satisfaction is the reward.
That taste, confirming the unreal wonder from our sample four years ago in Canby, sealed the deal, convincing even Ted and I to one day become the types who will purchase a precious bottle from half way around the world and serve spoonfuls to our guests with a smile, sharing the wonder that’s come “All the way from Italy.”
Rossi Barattini | Azienda Agricola
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Production
Via Giardini Sud, 170, 41043 Formigine Modena, Italy
Soon, you’ll be able to purchase this liquid gold and have it shipped to the US!
See Bella Luna Imports for details…
Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part I
(Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese & Spigaroli Culatello Ham)
Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part III
(Albana Wine at Celli Vini)
Traditions of the Land: Food in Italy Part IV
(Italian Origami: Handmade Pasta at Casa Artusi)
This post is part of a series from Emilia-Romagna: A region of Northern Italy ripe for exploration. Artisan Local Foods (tortellini, lasagne, pancetta, traditional balsamic vinegar, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to name a few!), Historical Cities (Modena, Ferrara, Bologna, Rimini, and more), and Beautiful Natural Areas (the Po River Delta, the Apennine Mountains, and the green, green farmland in between).