Modena – a balsamic vinegar tour

No self-respecting foodie could come to Modena and not go on a balsamic vinegar tour, so on my last day I went to Acetaia di Giorgio at 67 Via Sandro Cabassi on the edge of the historic centre (my map here) for a free tour and tasting.

The acetaia, one of only 110 traditional producers remaining, is located in the attic of a private family home. I was welcomed by Marcello, the young son-in-law of the family who speaks excellent English and was able to give a detailed explanation about the vinegar making process and its history.

Balsamic vinegar was first created by mistake in the cellars of the Palazzo Ducale di Modena. A barrel of wine had been forgotten and left for many years but when it was finally opened it was found that the contents had been transformed into a delicious vinegar. The first mention of ‘aceto balsamico’ in the cellar register appears for the first time in 1747, ‘balsam’ being a word of greek origin meaning ‘natural remedy’.

There are three classifications:

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP
Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP

Both DOP’s (protected production areas) have distinctive bottles which are legally determined by the government to assist quality control. Reggio Emilia’s bottles are slightly taller and straighter whereas Modena’s are stubby with a bulbous base. The bottles only come in 100ml sizes, and their boxes also look the same, so any other size or shape of bottle or box means it’s not the real deal. The key word to look for in the title is ‘tradizionale’ and the Reggio and Modena consortia are the only ones who produce true traditional balsamic vinegar.

In Modena, vinegars aged for more than twelve years earn the title ‘vecchio’ and have a white bottle cap; whereas those stored for twenty-five years or more are called ‘extravecchio’ or ‘stravecchio’ and have a gold cap.

The vinegar is only made from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes which are reduced to a thick syrup called mosto cotto. The mosto is aged in a battery of between 5 and 8 barrels of progressively smaller sizes as something like 20% of the product evaporates. At the end of the aging period (12 or 25 years) a small amount of finished product is drawn from the smallest cask. Each cask is then topped up with the contents of the preceding larger cask and fresh cotto mosto is added to the largest cask and the drawing and topping up process is repeated in every subsequent year. This solera process (aka ‘in perpetuum’) was introduced in the 1850s and is also used for aging sherry, port, whisky, rum and brandy.

Different batteries use casks made of different woods (eg chestnut, cherry, oak, mulberry, ash and juniper), each of which has its own distinctive flavour. Blends are also made with casks of different woods. Vinegars can also vary by the yeast used, the cooking time for the mosto and grape terroir.

Marcello gave me five different vinegars to taste…

First was a vecchio aged in a variety of woods creating a blended flavour that apparently goes well with cheeses like mozzarella or burrata.

Second was a vecchio aged in juniper which was very peppery and spicy, making it a good match for tartare or fish.

Third was an extravecchio blend that suits parmagiano cheese, mushrooms, risottos and ravioli.

Fourth, another extravecchio aged in cherry wood that had a sweetness that I’m told marries well with gelato and fruit, especially strawberries.

Finally, the “Carlotta 1986”, a special blend named after a granddaughter who received her own battery as is the tradition (the battery often formed part of a woman’s dowry in past times).

There was no pressure to buy but the need had definitely been created so I got a bottle of juniper vecchio (62€) and one of the Carlotta blend (110€). That may seem expensive for vinegar but you only need the tiniest drop to completely change the flavour profile of a dish. It really is a miracle ingredient that will enliven everything you add it to. And I think everyone should get to taste the best stuff at least once in their lives.

Unfortunately there are also many commercial-grade products that imitate the original. Glazes and other condiments may contain ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP as an ingredient, but they are made of as little as 20% grape must (not necessarily from Modena or Reggio Emilia), and often contain additives such as wine vinegar, colouring, caramel, and sometimes thickening agents in order to try and simulate the sweetness and viscosity of aged Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. The IGP status, introduced by the EU in 2009, only requires a minimum aging period of two months, rising to three years if labeled as ‘invecchiato’ (aged), and the aging is not necessarily done in wooden barrels. ‘Reductions’ are only ever made with this kind of vinegar as it would be an expensive waste to heat ‘tradizionale’ which is reduced by evaporation anyway.

True balsamic vinegar is nearly black in colour, and has a very thick glossy texture. It has an intense, fruity flavour that balances the natural sweet and sour elements in the cotto mosto with hints of wood from the casks. The solera process means there are never good or bad years and the vinegars in the battery share the same vintages. It will never go off as it’s already vinegar, but it’s best stored in a cool dark place.

A visit to Acetaia di Giorgio is one of my top tips for Modena, and of course you can’t go home without at least one bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. Go on treat yourself!

That’s all for Modena for now (I must go back one day), moving on to Bologna next…

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