I’ve always loved balsamic vinegar. Not just the stuff to add to a salad, but the thicker, aged traditional balsamic vinegar that I learned to drip over a nice parmagiano cheese. I thought I was pretty fancy, learning this little trick. I thought I was pretty cultured and worldly, understanding the difference between lesser quality balsamic from the grocery store and the aged stuff sold at gourmet food shops.
I had no idea, though, how much actually goes into the process of making the real stuff – the Balsamico di Modena. The tradition, the process, the aging, and the history. I learned an amazing amount about these tiny bottles filled with sweet balsamic.
We actually toured three acetaia, or manufacturers of Balsamico di Modena, while in Emilia Romagna. The first and most interesting to us, was La Noce, run by a lovely gentleman named Giorgio, just outside of Maranello, Italy, the home of Ferrari. He taught us the basics of how to make traditional balsamic vinegar.
Learning the Secrets Behind Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
It was most interesting because, before walking into Giorgio’s acetaia and museum, I had no idea what went into making true traditional balsamic vinegar. Giorgio quickly schooled us, literally, by walking through the process on a blackboard, explaining the difference between the process of turning grapes into wine, versus grapes into balsamic.
Some of the grapes become aceto di vino, which is the more common vinegar, that you might use in a salad. Balsamico di Modena, though, is completely different. The grape juice is heated by a fire, cooked in open air, and allowed to evaporate up to 50%, resulting in a much thicker product than regular old balsamic.
Sorry for the metric system here, but about 100 kg of grapes, creates about 75 liters of liquid. After this heating process, only 35 liters remain. Eventually, the liquid is placed into barrels, and then ultimately into a batteria, a series of, generally, 5 barrels, made of different kinds of wood, for aging.
An Acetaia and the Batteria
The concept of a batteria became kind of fascinating to me. I knew that a lot of wine is aged in oak barrels, and I assumed Balsamico di Modena was made in a similar process. Instead, the batteria, the group of 5 barrels, are different in size, with each barrel getting increasingly smaller. The barrels within the batteria are often made of different types of wood, like chestnut, ash, or juniper.
Giorgio explained the process of aging the traditional balsamic vinegar with an analogy to schooling. The largest barrel is like elementary school, then middle school, then superior school, then university, and then a masters program. Only a few people graduate with a masters degree. Similar, only a small amount of balsamic makes its way to the smallest barrel in the batteria. The aging process involves the transferring of the vinegar from the largest to the smallest over time. Each level of schooling produces fewer and fewer graduates, just as each barrel products a smaller and smaller amount of traditional balsamic vinegar over time.
Historically, almost every family in Emilia Romagna would have had a batteria for making their own balsamic. When a new child was born to the family, a new batteria would be christened, along with the baby. That batteria would then be gifted to the child on their wedding day, as part of a dowry.
An acetaia, though, might have dozens of batterias, with possibly hundreds of individual barrels. They are all stored in the attic, where there is the greatest change in temperature over the seasons, from cold in the winter to hot in the summer, which also affects the aging process. Fascinating.
And, remember that 100kg, turned into 75 liters, turned into 35 liters …. well, in the end a single liter, or maybe two liters tops, comes from the smallest barrel in the batteria each year. After 25 years of work, from 100 kg of grapes, you get maybe one or two liters of aged Balsamico di Modena.
The consortium in Emilia Romagna that regulates Balsamico di Modena, sets the standards in the region, allowing traditional balsamic vinegar that has been aged at least 12 years to be considered aceto balsamico di Modena tradizionale. When aged at least 25 years, it can be deemed extravecchio, or extra old.
Other, cheaper balsamic may seem better than table vinegar from the super market, but unless it is approved by this consortium, there is no way of knowing its quality. It may include sugars, or caramel, or other additives to make it sweeter, thicker, or to give it the right color.
The consortium even dictates that all registered users bottle their traditional balsamic vinegar using the exact same bottle, with the same color top, either orange or gold, depending on the age. They are not allowed to say anywhere on the label that it is 12 years old or 25 years old, only that it is either tradizionale, or extravecchio, that’s it. This is because the aging process does not allow an acetaia to know for sure the vintage of the vinegar, like a winery. There is so much mixing and transferring and tradition, that all they can say is at least 12, or at least 25.
Giorgio merely provided us a high level understanding of how Balsamico di Modena is made. There is so much more to it than even I could understand, after three tours of three different acetaia in Emilia Romagna. All I knew when Giorgio finished with us at La Noce was that I wanted a bottle for myself. I wanted that little bit of luxury, and tradition.
Problem: the registered and regulated Balsamico di Modena, the good stuff, generally sells for 50 Euros for tradizionale and 80 Euros or more for extravecchio. Not necessarily an investment I could make as we were heading back to Bali, with no cheese, or no pasta to serve it on. Perhaps, someday, when we live in Emilia Romagna for awhile, I will purchase a bottle of the good stuff, the real stuff, and I will enjoy this little bit of luxury, ever single day.
Via Giardini Nord, 9764, in Montagnana
A visit to the acetaia and balsamic vinegar tasting room is free, and Giorgio has a restaurant across the road, but reservations are required to dine, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Or tours can be arranged ahead of time through the Tourism Board, or contact ModenaTur.
Looking for Top Things To Do in Modena for Foodies?
Check out our recommended Italian food tours in and around Modena.[table id=13 /] [box]
Heading to Modena?
Where to Stay in Modena: Get hotel recommendations here.
Learn more: Get the only guide you ever need for Modena, the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, from Amazon. Or, get a copy of Pellegrino Artusi’s The Art of Eating Well to learn to cook traditional Italian cuisine at home. [/box]
Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?
Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now. If you are a NOOK reader, it is also available for download on Barnes and Noble.
We were supported during our tour by Emilia Romagna Tourism, but all of my opinions, and all of my yummy sounds, are of course my own.
For more about the food in Emilia Romagna, check out our Emilia Romagna Food Travel Guide.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.