Sally, Lisa and I journeyed to the hills above Modena, east of Parma and just south of the Via Emilia, to visit a place of alchemy. Here the juice of grapes is transformed over time to a liquid whose taste nearly defies description. It is one of the most precious of all culinary delicacies – Balsamic Vinegar. At 6% acid, it is as strong as other vinegars, yet at the same time it is sweet and loaded with other flavors that evolve with age.
We visited Acetaia La Noce (ach-e-TIE-a la NO-che), a small maker of the dark syrup, situated on a bluff overlooking the valley. It has been documented that families in this region have been producing this stuff for at least 1,000 years, though the name Balsamic Vinegar seems to have come about in the 1700’s. (a balsam is a dark, resinous substance used for medicinal purposes) The work and the knowledge needed to make the vinegar span generations. At La Noce, the family of Giorgio Muzzarelli has been making this vinegar for at least 5 generations, and now involves his sons Davide and Elise.
Actually, you could say generations are involved from birth. Davide showed us the barrels his father made for him when he was born, in the tradition of Balsamic makers. Giorgio also has barrels made for him when he was born, but they are still at the home of his father, Davide’s grandfather.
The process begins with cotto mosto or cooked must, which is the juice which has been pressed from grapes and then boiled over a wood fire. Giorgio gave us a sample and it is delicious on its own. It was once the only form of sugar available to country folk.
The cotto mosto is placed in a series of barrels of graduated size which are positioned on their sides, sometimes in racks. Barrels are never completely full, nor completely empty. The bung holes of the barrels are left open to the air with a swatch of cloth covering the opening and a rock on top to hold it in place. The cloth helps keep out flies and other critters. And with time the vinegar starts to break down the rock, and the cloth catches the dust.
Soon after the fresh must is in the barrel a spontaneous alcoholic fermentation takes place. Not long after that, bacteria go to work converting the alcohol to vinegar. Air also acts on the liquid, oxidizing the must and adding another flavor dimension. Over time the enzymes in the juice also act on the compounds therein to break them down, and they then combine with other compounds in the mix. The liquid evaporates and concentrates the flavors over the years. These reactions are complex and I expect they are not completely understood, but the results are truly remarkable.
Each year, a portion of the contents of smallest barrel is withdrawn. It is replaced from the contents of the next largest barrel. The second barrel is topped off from the contents of the third, and so on. A battery of barrels, which Davide called a Family, can have as few as 3 barrels or as many as 14. Aging continues indefinitely. There are vinegars, thick and barely pourable, aged 40, 50 and more years. To be Tradizionale Balsamic, it must be conditioned to an average age of 12 years. 18 and 25 year agings are also commonly marketed. This luscious goo is used only by the drop on grilled meats and vegetables, Others find it irresistible on strawberries or even vanilla ice cream.
You may think you have some Balsamic Vinegar in your cupboard right now, but few of us have the real thing. Many things are sold with the name Balsamic Vinegar. Often they are red wine vinegar with caramel color and sugar. Some contain a bit of real balsamic vinegar. Some are fermented cotto mosto, but only left to age a few years. Others can have any number of flavorings combined to imitate the complex flavors of real Balsamic. Because the real stuff is so rare and expensive, these other vinegars have their place and its okay to enjoy them for everyday use. Many acetaia produce these condiments in addition to
the traditional vinegar.
To protect their product, producers joined consortia in the 1980’s to establish quality standards and police the counterfeiters. Though anyone can label their product as Balsamic Vinegar, the only word they are not allowed to use is Tradizionale. If that word is on the label, you can be assured the vinegar is genuine. Members of the Consortium in Modena submits samples of their product each year to a blind tasting panel of 6 master craftsmen. If the vinegar passes muster, the product is returned to the maker already sealed in special 100 ml bottles which only the Consortium possesses. If it is not approved, it is returned to the acetaia and goes back to the barrel for more aging. Balsamic vinegar is also produced by a consortium in Reggio Emilia, a little ways down the road, and is said to be equally good.
Why so pricey? It takes 220 pounds of grapes and at least 25 or more years to produce enough 25 year Balsamic Vinegar to fill a wine bottle. When I was in Boston in January I priced a 100 ml bottle (a little less than 4 ounces) of 25 year Tradizionale Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. It carried a price tag of $218. After a tasting of their delicious offerings, Giorgio and his family offered us a far better deal, and we bought as much Tradizionale and condiment vinegar as we felt we could reasonably carry.
Got to watch how much you buy when you have to carry it all, and soon we will be moving on…