Did you know that Balsamic vinegar isn’t really vinegar (which is fermented wine)? Neither did I, until the second stop on my Food Experiences day trip from Bologna (run by Times of Italy/Italian Days), when we went to Acetaia Villa San Donnino. They produce DOP designated Balsamic vinegar, along with a few other Balsamic-related products.
The tour company’s owner, Alessandro, acted as our guide for the day, and explained the Balsamic-making process to us while we toured the facility.
LIke so many of the other “simple” processes that we saw that day, the ingredients for Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) are few — grape juice and time. Lots and lots of time. If you thought that the Prosciutto di Modena process (12-18 months) and the Parmigiano-Reggiano process (up to 36 months) were lengthy labors of love, try 12 YEARS… at a minimum! Or 25 years for the finest “extra vecchio” Balsamic.
As with other labels of protected origin, the grapes must be harvested from the Modena or Reggio Emilia provinces (from Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes), and follow strict quality control and inspection procedures. The only other ingredient “allowed” is the naturally-occurring bacteria in the air, which (similar to San Francisco sourdough) gives the end product a unique and localized taste.
The process starts by cooking freshly-pressed grape juice, which if not cooked would ferment to become wine and wine vinegar. This cooked “must” is then simply poured into a series of at least five wooden barrels of descending size (the batteria) and left to sit.
It turns out that the best place for the vinegar to sit and age is in an attic, so this is literally a home project, with even commercial producers storing their batterias above their homes or office spaces.
Once a year (yes, one time a year!), the vinegar maker checks the smallest barrel, which will have lost 30% of its initial volume to evaporation. He replaces that from the next largest barrel, then refills that from its “big brother”, and so on. The largest barrel will need a substantial amount of refilling, which is done by adding a new batch of freshly-cooked must.
This goes on for at least 12 years before the contents of the smallest barrel can be bottled and sold. And speaking of bottling, there is an official bottle for the TBV, in a specific shape, holding 100 cc (making it airplane-approved) and individually numbered. The color of the label distinguishes 12-year-old (silver) from 25-year-old (gold) vinegar.
When we tasted five vinegar products, the differences were immediately apparent. The first taste was a commercial product (not from this acetaia)… with a thin mouth-feel and it didn’t linger on the tongue. It would be fine for a salad or cooking, but nothing special.
The next was the acetaia’s “condimento”, which is made using the same steps as the TBV, but not aged as long, served with a Balsamic jelly, which I understood to be the condiment mixed with a fruit pectin. We tasted them over ricotta cheese (really good), as well as vanilla ice cream (also really good, but I thought the tang of the ricotta was really emphasized by the tang of the Balsamic condiment).
(Left) Balsamic jelly on ricotta
(Right) Balsamic over ice cream
Then we got to the good stuff, the thick, sticky good stuff. You can definitely tell the difference between the 12-year-old and the 25-year-old, just from watching it pour (or drip) from the bottle. Personally, I preferred the 12-year-old, at least during the tasting. I might have a completely different reaction if I were having it on strawberries or as part of a dish.
By the way, some restaurants mimic the viscosity of the good stuff by taking commercial Balsamic and boiling it into a syrup. Cheaters.
As you can imagine, between the time it takes to develop the final product, and the cost of the batterias (reportedly up to $10,000 per set), this is not a gold mine for the families that produce Balsamic, despite the high retail cost of the product. In fact, Alessandro said that annual profit can be as little as 45 Euros per batteria (or at least, that’s what I understood him to say).
Rather than being a profit center, this is a family tradition, such that it is customary to start a new batteria on the birth of a child, and present them with it (complete with aged vinegar) on their wedding or other significant occasion. In fact, the Acetaia we visited had a batteria that Alessandro has set up for his young daughter, Emma, complete with her name emblazoned on the barrels.
As far as how to use it, the better the vinegar, the more you want to showcase it. Rather than use the 12- or 25-year-old in a salad dressing, finish a steak with a few drops, or drip it on Parmigiano-Reggiano chunks. A friend loves less-aged Balsamic drizzled over pastas in cream sauces, finding that the tang balanced the heavier sauce.