Balsamic vinegar is an ubiquitous ingredient in many houses around the world. The syrupy, dark glossy brown liquid is pleasantly both sweet and sour. Although many know that it is highly prized, few have tasted the rare traditional balsamic vinegar, particularly the “extra-vecchio” traditional balsamic vinegar which is in a league of its own. Traditional balsamic vinegar is the reason for the commercial balsamic vinegar’s reputation as a luxury food.
The standard balsamic vinegar which most people have tried is industrially produced from wine vinegar which has been dressed up with colouring, caramel and thickeners. It is aged two months (although if labelled “invecchiato” it has been aged for three years). This cannot compare to the infinitely longer, costlier and more elaborate process of the traditional balsamic vinegar.
Origin and history of traditional vinegar
Balsamic vinegar has been produced in the area around Modena and Reggio Emilia since the Middle Ages. Even in 1839 Giorgio Gallesio wrote about the distinction between the two types of vinegars being made from grape must in Modena. The first product is the one most people are familiar with, balsamic vinegar, “Aceto Balsamico Di Modena PGI“. The second is the rare traditional balsamic vinegar, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale“. Traditional balsamic vinegar is distinct due to the labourious process involved in making it and the many controls in place to ensure its quality.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is so highly prized that it is a local aristocratic tradition to start new barrels of vinegar when a child was born in the family. When the child became an adult, the vinegar became theirs. When daughters married, they would take their barrels of vinegar to their new home. Normal commercial grade balsamic vinegar however is a cheap imitation that is widely available.
Balsamic vinegar is made from Trebbiano di Spagna (adding the floral and fruit to the flavour), Lambrusco (lends acidity), Sauvignon and Ancellotta grapes which are pressed and left on the skins overnight. The must (grape juice) is then filtered and cooked outdoors over a flame which must be maintained at 90-95C and skimmed constantly. It is cooked this way for 12 to 14 hours until the must has reduced by half. This is the most important step in the process as the temperature it is cooked at gives the vinegar it’s distinct flavour.
The cooked must (mosto cotto) is then added to a series of successively smaller barrells, each a different type of wood, to slowly mature for 12 to 25 years. The minimum number of barrels that can be used is 5 and there is no maximum, although the most is typically 10 barrels with an average around 7. The barrels are made of hard wood from the acacia, chestnut, locust tree, cherry, juniper, durmast oak, ashwood, and mulberry trees. The wood has to be smooth so that the vinegar does not leak and is matured for 4-5 years before it can be made into barrells. It is essential that natural materials are used to maintain the original aromas of the must.
The temperature must be ideal for the vinegar mother to live ranging between 33 and 17C. The “acetaia” (where the vinegar is stored) was traditionally kept in the attic of the house where the temperatures swings are more dramatic. They traditionally were placed in terracotta containers and hung from the rafters. The terracotta was porous however so the rich would buy glass. When they started using barrels they would cover the barrel with a stone to keep mice from falling in and ruining the vinegar. Some of the old stones are now concave as the acidity in the vinegar slowly eats away at the stone.
The vinegar from the smallest barrel is decanted off to be sold. Each cask is then topped up with vinegar from the preceding cask and new cooked must is added to the largest cask. This system is called the solera system or in perpetuum. During the winter, the vinegar filters itself in the colder temperatures with the sediment falling to the bottom. The barrels get increasingly smaller because some of the vinegar evaporates during the aging process. This evaporation and slow raging concentrates and intensifies the flavours. Two litres of 25 year old traditional vinegar will require a whopping 100 kg of grapes (quintali). The smallest barrel was traditionally reserved for the doctor, lawyer and chemist.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is glossy, viscous and dark brown with a deep sweet then sour flavour. The flavour is rich and complex with a lot of finesse, unlike the harsh overly sweet and too acidic cheap balsamic vinegar. The vinegar has to be evaluated by a panel of five professional tasters before it can be sold as traditional balsamic vinegar. The judges from the Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar put the vinegar in a glass decanter and roll it around against the light to check it is the right colour. They are looking for certain characteristics such as the dark brown colour, body, flavour and that it is free of defects. This is the quality assurance that comes with the label.
Characteristics of the different types of traditional balsamic vinegar
Traditional balsamic vinegar is always sold in 100 ml small glass bottles which are either spherical with a rectangular base if it is from Modena or the shape of a miniaturised wine bottle if it is from Reggio Emilia. The foil cap varies in colour depending on the age the vinegar was bottled.
This is balsamic vinegar which does not have the approval of the Balsamic Vinegar Consortium. There are no standards or labelling systems so their quality may vary greatly.
Affinato / Aragosta
The 12 year-old “affinato” is amber coloured and foggy. In Modena, the affinato has a white foil cap while in Reggio Emilia it has a red label. In Modena it costs EUR 45 but will cost substantially more abroad. It bears a white cap. It pairs well with roast meats, salmon, tuna and swordfish.
The 18 year-old is only from Reggio Emilia and has a silver label.
Extra-vecchio / Oro
The 25 year-old “extra vecchio” is ruby coloured and almost opaque. In Modena the “extra vecchio” has a gold foil cap while in Reggio Emilia it has a gold label. In Modena it will cost EUR 70 (and abroad as much as $400). It is a perfect match with Parmigiano-Reggiano, risotto alla parmigiana (risotto with Parmgiano-Reggiano cheese), strawberries, gelato, chocolate, pastry cream, omelettes with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, carpaccio, crudite, chicory based salads, onions and zucchini.
It is incomparable to the rather unrefined balsamic vinegar sold in grocery stores around the world. It’s price tag reflects this. If you want to buy traditional balsamic vinegar, look for the characteristic bottle shape and the label that reads, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP” or “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio-Emilia DOP”.
If you are visiting Emilia, every year there is a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Festival in Spilimberto where the coveted San Giovanni prize is awarded for the best vinegar. To learn more about traditional balsamic vinegar, see:
Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
Viale Virgilio 55
Tel: +39 059 208604
Museo del Balsamico Tradizionale (Traditional Balsamic Museum)
Villa comunale Fabriani
Via Roncati, 28
Tel: +39 059 781614
E-mail: [email protected]
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