The next stop on the tour was an acetaia.
One of the most celebrated, and misunderstood, products of Emilia Romagna is balsamic vinegar. There are lots of things that call themselves balsamic vinegar, some that even call themselves balsamic vinegar of Modena, and more than a few that add those magic letters IGP (indicazione geografica protetta). Why here’s a bottle from Trader Joe’s that’s only a coupla bucks.
It can be a little confusing. Vinegar can legally be called balsamic vinegar IGP if it’s made from at least one product from Modena, for instance, if it uses some grapes from Modena. You could even call it traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena; there’s no law against that. But to be called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, and get the DOP (denominazione di origine protetta), well, that’s a different story. For this you need Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes from Modena – the only ingredients – and a lot of patience.
The grapes are cooked down, and put into a series of barrels of diminishing size.
The barrels are made out of a variety of woods – in this case oak, chestnut and cherry – but there seem to be no requirements other than a general preference for some variety. The barrels are open, and hence there’s some evaporation. Once a year, the amount evaporated from each barrel is replaced with an amount taken from a barrel of the next largest size. The largest barrel gets some newly-cooked grape must. This goes on for twelve years before any vinegar can be bottled, and that only from the smallest barrel. Figuring out the exact age of the vinegar in each barrel is actually a little complicated, because of the constant topping up, but for those interested, it can be done (Giudici, P. and Rinaldi, G. (2007). A theoretical model to predict the age of traditional balsamic vinegar. J. Food Eng. 82, 121–127). If twelve year old vinegar isn’t quite refined enough for you, there’s the twenty five year old, extravecchio, variety. It is a tradition in Modena for a girl to be given a series of barrels when she’s born, so as to have some vinegar ready for her dowry.
The acetaia we visited had a number of series of barrels (batterie) going, some of which they were overseeing for other people. Barrels are kept in the attic to accentuate seasonal variation; they have to be hot in summer and cold in winter.
Production of balsamic vinegar is understandably limited, which explains the proliferation of such a wide variety of ‘copies’. Most of these, as in the case of Trader Joe’s, are made from grape must augmented with wine vinegar, and are thickened and sweetened (and darkened) artificially to approximate the taste and texture of the real thing.
As in the case of Parmigiano-Reggiano, inspectors from a consortium have to approve the vinegar before it is bottled, but in this case the vinegar is assessed mostly on the basis of taste. Once approved, the vinegar goes into a bottle of a legally-specified shape, with the twelve year old vinegar getting a white cap, and the twenty five year old stuff getting a gold cap. It also gets the DOP seal, which is most obvious guarantee that it’s the real thing.
Given the limited production of real aceto balsamico di Modena, a compromise product has developed that goes through the same process as the real thing, but is ‘only’ aged for six years. It is not augmented with wine vinegar or darkened with caramel coloring. It can’t legally be called aceto balsamico, so instead it’s called balsamic condiment.
After our tour we had a tasting, starting with the commercially produced pseudo-balsamic vinegar, to the condiment, and progressing to the real thing. We also tried it on fresh ricotta (fresh as in just picked up from the farm) and ice cream. The latter in particular was something of a revelation.
Of course there was balsamic vinegar available for sale at the acetaia, and though the twelve year old stuff seemed a bit too extravagant, and the twenty five year old stuff downright prohibitive, I did get a bottle of the condiment. While looking at the products – there were only five – I was surprised to discover amongst them a bottle of nocino! It slowly dawned on me that nocino is another traditional product of Modena. In fact the recipe I use is from the order of Modenese nocino makers. When I asked our guide about it, she was a little surprised that I’d heard of nocino, let alone make it, and poured out a cup of nocino from a little barrel tucked in a corner of the ‘showroom’. It tasted remarkably like my homemade version. She said her family makes it, too, as do most Modenese families. I asked her if they filtered it, since I always have problems with sediment, but she said they didn’t do anything to clarify it.
Of course there was no way I could resist getting a bottle of the real thing.
Thus the second leg of the tour ended with me happily toting my bag of nocino to the mini van, which then transported us to stop number three…