Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is a Family Affair
The difference between traditional balsamic and the stuff you find at the grocery store is years, at least 12 of them. And ingredients. Traditional vinegar is made only with must (fresh grape juice).
A rose is a rose is a rose, but the same is not true for balsamic vinegar. To talk about Modena balsamic vinegar is to talk about two different things.
The Pedroni family has been living and making vinegar in Rubbiara di Nonantola, a short ride east of Modena, since 1862. Theirs is the first acetaia I visit. Italo, the family patriarch with white hair and thick-rimmed glasses, makes me an espresso.
The coffee is strong enough to double as Vespa fuel. I down it and wonder if it will help prepare my nearly empty stomach for tasting one balsamic vinegar after another.
Fabrizio Zoboli—a local, although not of Pedroni stock—shows me around. Neighboring fields of grapes and several modest buildings are concentrated behind the family's tavern: Osteria di Rubbiara. It looks more like a family's hobby farm than one of the most prestigious balsamic producers in the region.
"There is aceto balsamico di Modena and traditionale—two things that are very different," explains Zoboli.
The difference between them is years, at least 12 of them. And ingredients. Traditional vinegar is made only with must (fresh grape juice).
And you've probably never had it.
"Probably you buy balsamic vinegar at the supermarket normally, but it is a very commercial type of vinegar."
"Balsamic vinegar of Modena you can make by mixing wine vinegar, caramel, other flavors, and you can put it on the market after two months, one day. For this reason, there are a millions of hectoliters [of it] around the world," says Zoboli.
The commercial product was developed about 30 years ago to satisfy the demand.
Traditional vinegar has the consistency of syrup, so caramel and thickeners like corn flour are often added to achieve a similar texture.
An official European Union certification labels traditional vinegar "D.O.P." (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). It comes in two ages: 12 and 25 years.
"The 12-year-old is a square with edges; 25 is a circle without edges," says Rossella Merighi, who works at La Consorteria 1966.
She describes balsamic vinegar as "a regional family tradition some have turned into a business."
It is this amount of time that does not lend itself to mass production. That's where the other vinegar comes in. It is labeled "I.G.P." (protected geographical indication).
This is the vinegar you probably know and drown salad in.
"I.G.P. is linked to the territory in a different way," Merighi tells me. It can be made with grapes from anywhere, but must be produced in the region. To produce D.O.P., all the steps must happen in the region."
I.G.P. balsamic can be older than two months, which means it is also the label stuck on vinegar that is younger than 12 years. Anything that has been aged for at least three years can be labeled "invecchiato" (aged).
Only Modena and its neighbor Reggio Emilia produce traditional balsamic vinegar. In Modena, the Consorzio Tutela Aceta Balsamic di Modena keeps everything in check. They perform three functions: "defense, protection, and promotion of the product." Its supervisors are "qualified as public security agents."
Traditional vinegar is worth protecting. It doesn't need caramel and is simply a product of the alchemy between must, wooden barrels, and time. The original sweet 'n' sour.
Because the vinegar soaks up the flavors of the cask it is aged in, wood—oak, mulberry, chestnut, cherry, juniper, ash, and acacia—is part of the recipe. Cherry makes for sweet vinegar, and juniper bitter. "Each producer keeps a secret, using different wood with these kinds of wood," says Zoboli.
The Pedronis have two acetaie. In the first, the acetaia grande, a confessional booth is jammed next to the entrance. Here is where the vinegar gets going.
It all begins with grapes; the Pedroni family uses both lambrusco and Trebbiano di Spagna. Around the end of September, fresh must is cooked for around 24 hours. "It depends on the weather, on the humidity, on all of these characteristics," explains Zoboli. The juice is reduced by about half.
It is then set aside for three to four months to trigger natural fermentation. And then, in January or February, the process of making vinegar begins. This happens in a battery—a minimum of five and a maximum of 12 barrels, decreasing in size. The barrels are filled, leaving room at the top for bacteria.
Each cask has a hole in its top (cocchiume), so they are always open and exposed to air.
The barrels are refilled each year. One by one, the liquid of the second smallest barrel is poured into the smallest, and then the liquid from the third barrel to the second and so on. New must is added only to the largest barrel. "And then at the end of 12 years, you can take one liter, one liter and a half from the little one."
Forget balsamic reduction. Balsamic is a reduction.
In a second acetaia, the Pedronis keep older barrels to become extra vecchio, extra old. Here you feel the smell in your eyes.
"It isn't a commercial product. This is why it's expensive. It is an exclusive product," Zoboli says as we sip 25-year-old vinegar from tiny spoons. A 100-milliliter bottle sells for 85 euros.
The Pedronis have put together a smaller collection of recipes. Keeping with Italian culinary traditions, there are lots of rules. Traditional balsamic vinegar should be the last thing added to a dish and should be served immediately afterwards.
After all, it is a "strong individualist."
Some vinegars, like their 12-year-old D.O.P., pairs best with strong meat. "The acidity cleans your mouth," Zoboli says. Vinegars aged in cherry are especially good with strawberries or ice cream.
The next day, I visit Acetaia Sereni. I try a ten-year-old I.G.P. "It is good with eggs and bacon," Pier Lugi Sereni tells me.
Sereni runs the business, and it was his grandmother Nonna Santina who started making vinegar. The barrels are shinier, the facilities larger, but once again, their vinegar is a story about their family. "Balsamic vinegar is a living being, always present at any event in the home, a real family tree," is Sereni's description.
It is also a story of tensions and contradictions between a small-scale family tradition and a voracious market. Ninety percent of Modena balsamic vinegar is exported.
It was first sold in the United States by Chuck Williams in the 1970s through Williams-Sonoma, but writer David Kamp argues that Dean & DeLuca in New York was responsible for making the vinegar ubiquitous. In 1978, the New York Times published an article entitled "La Dolce Vinegar, Rich and Robust," which profiled this new condiment carried by the specialty grocer.
At that time, it was still aged in wood, but the demand for balsamic vinegar ended up creating an entirely different product.
Now that nearly every Italian restaurant has a bottle of balsamic already waiting on the table, it is hard to imagine that it was once an obscure, regional product, not even well-known in other parts of Italy.
But that traditional vinegar? It's still a family affair.