Balsamico, Balsamico: How to Choose a Good (and Authentic) Balsamic Vinegar
by Gareth Jones
“When we think that 100 kgs of grapes converts into just 2 litres of Balsamico after 25 years ageing, we appreciate what’s quite so special.”
Imagine a magical elixir which has a history charted back to 1785 – and probably earlier — that takes skills passed down through the generations of families, and is years in the making. Made traditionally, this elixir has the power to transport one to Heaven on a spoon, and just one word on the bottle tells us the real from the manufactured.
That word is ‘Tradizionale’ and to a cynic it could read like a word from the marketeer’s limited lexicon. This one word, however, divides the Heavenly stunning from the just special and Earthly – and sometimes not special at all for its added caramel and sugar. Time to become acquainted with the genuine Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP.
First principles then – some manufactured, plain Aceto Balsamico di Modena is OK – some better than OK. All is perfectly legal – but best only buy if it’s labelled ’IGP‘ or ‘DOP‘ – meaning the ingredients correctly come from the protected area around Modena. The price will be a fraction of ‘Tradizionale’ – the taste will be world’s apart. Tradizionale will never disappoint.
To explore the origins of Tradizionale Balsamico, meet the makers and be invited to taste from their last barrel we were transported upwards beyond the ‘Acetaia’ to another place. Angels play their lyres, bluebirds sing, and everyone silently gasps in delight as we catch each other’s eye is almost disbelief.
We are tasting the genuine Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena – minimum 12 years in the making and the best being 18, 25 years and more.
We are in the Acetaia of the Coterie of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Makers in Spilamberto (Modena) - the Acetaia is the attic where the Modenese climate plays its essential part. Cold and damp in winter from the surrounding low lying farmland that’s traditionally been criss-crossed by man-made water channels. In summer, it’s fiercely hot for hours each day from the relentless hours of sunshine that beat their way to Earth from Spring to Autumn. Emilia-Romagna, like so much of Italy, is blessed and one has only to study her gastronomy to understand why.
True Balsamico comes only from what was originally the Ducal lands of the Este family around Modena, where viticulture and climate fuse to bring us a grape harvest used exclusively for Balsamico production. Nowhere else on the Planet is this permitted or possible, but in this small strip of land in Emilia-Romagna, The Coterie has its home in Spilamberto, a small town that’s but a short 10 km hop from the medieval city of Modena – as famous the world over for Zampone, Cotecchino and Mortadella, as it is for the beautiful and deep-throated beasts of Ferrari, Maserati and Ducati.
Design plays a role in each hour one passes in Italy – ‘Tradizionale’ Aceto Balsamico di Modena is only ever now numbered and sold in a round bottle with an elegant and functional blocked based designed by Guigiaro, much as Carpigiani recently commissioned Pininfarina to design an ice cream display unit. Guigiaro knows function as he’s the one that designed the VW Golf, Fiat Panda and the beautiful, if short lived Alfasud.
Photographer, writer and architectural commentator Saverio Lombardi Vallauri makes this clear: “We must realise that Italy is and always was the world centre for pure design – no hour passes without us experiencing beauty and function, from a pasta shape or vinegar bottle, to a super car or building. It’s about celebration at any level, from the familiar to the fantastic.”
The genuine ‘Tradizionale’ Balsamico is made from just one ingredient – grape-must- the crushed juice of fresh picked wine grapes, known in Italy as ‘mosto‘. The bunches are harvested by hand and only ever in the late afternoon as the sun retreats from above the vineyards of Trebbiano (di Spagna or the Modenese varietal), Lambrusco or Ancellota grapes. It is pressed that same evening while the fruit is still warm to the touch. Most grapes grown in the area go for Balsamico, although fine wines do exist made from these same varietals.
The morning after harvesting, the grape-must is slow cooked in a large cauldron over a wood fire at between 90-95° C and, essential to the process, only ever out in the open air with the one in charge all the while skimming off the solids which float to the surface – much like making a fine meat stock. The end result should be a clear, pure liquid for the process to begin.
Magic begins almost immediately as the cooled liquid is poured into a large barrel leaving around 30% free for air to circulate and the autumnal Modenese air to begin its work.
A minimum of 5 barrels, ranging from large through to small, are set on their sides on a wooden runners in a batteria. Some families have 7 barrels in their batteria and others reach for perfection with as many as 10-12. Today, a standard set of 5 hand crafted barrels, each made from different woods and dried for 3 years, costs around €2,000. Older, well-aged batterias, if and when they come up for sale, change hands for considerably more.
The chosen woods are all locally grown – juniper, chestnut, cherry, oak, mulberry and another, a hardwood called ‘black locust’.
The wood imparts flavours and colour to the maturing liquid, all of which comes together in magnificent fusion in the final barrel – the smallest in the batteria. The nearest comparison might be the solera system used to bring about sherry.
The family vinegar maker judges when to test, taste, smell, and then transfer the increasingly precious liquid from barrel to barrel up his batteria.
The barrel opening on the top is covered by a linen cloth folded two or three times. Something short of alchemy is at work as the seasons come and go. The aroma greeting you as you climb to the attic is heady. Experienced vinegar makers judge the ageing development by smell and sight alone – science is there as a check, much like a fine wine or spirit maker judges what’s in his care.
As in France’s world famous wine châteaux and Spain’s sherry solera’s, barrels are ear-marked for famous people – as much for publicity as choice. A film star’s signature on a wine cask is re-invented in Spilamberto – there we found Slow Food has its own private batterie in the Coterie’s attic, now slowly ageing under the master’s trained eye and expert nose.
Comparisons from pharmacist to food maker are never more evident than when the vinegar is tested for age and readiness. The master – here Franco Satrioni, the Esperto Conduttore di Acetaia — draws a small quality in a pipette (alzavino) from the smallest, final barrel and lets it flow into a round, flat bottom bottle – not for a moment does he gaze elsewhere. The atmosphere is hushed as the master works and we look on amazed.
After being allowed to settle for 20-30 minutes, the round is held up to a light source (a candle or even a bare light bulb) and rotated through 45°. The time it takes to drain back to the bottom tells him how the vinegar is maturing – the slower the better. The difference between 12 and 24 years is as marked as the flavour.
Each year on June 24th they hold the ‘Palio di San Giovanni’ – patron saint of Spilamberto – and an especially competitive day when families submit their Balsamico for judging.
Around 1,200 phials from the 1,500 Coterie members were expertly viewed, tasted and marked by the masters the day we visited. Just twelve are awarded accolades by way of prestigious certificates and medals – more important is that your Balsamico has been recognised by the be-ribboned maestro’s at Balsamico HQ in the elegant Villa Fabriani.
It’s said there are 8-10,000 families in the region producing Balsamico Tradizionale for their personal use — with just 150 registered sellers dispensing 12-25 year-old genuine Balsamico.
When we think that 100 kgs of grapes converts into just 2 litres of Balsamico after 25 years ageing, we appreciate what’s quite so special. A wine maker might expect 70 x 75cl bottles of wine from the same weight of fruit, depending on when and where he picks and how traditional is his method of turning grapes into wine. RAI – Italy’s main TV station, was much in evidence as the Palio judging went on behind closed doors – we too were briefly privy to their words, expressions and complicated marking system.
To be taken aside by the experts is one thing. To taste aged Balsamico is another – only ever off a specially crafted porcelain or silver spoon. We ended our afternoon in Spilamberto sipping the lightly sparkling Lambrusco with locally grown strawberries and 30-month Parmigiano dressed with aged Balsamico, all ahead of the Palio results being announced.
We talked commercially of lesser caramel / sugar added vinegars sold as – and some passed off – as Balsamico. I raised the point of recent sightings of ’White Balsamico’ and eyes around the room went skywards. There is no such thing outside a marketeer’s offering to an avaricious retailer. Similarly caramel and sugar dosages have no place in a genuine Balsamico di Modena.
Without the word ‘Tradizionale’ on the label you are buying the lesser product – the price alone should tell you that.
Real or ersatz, artisan or industrial. We can decide who we want to make and produce our food. Cost is not always the arbitor either.
A fine Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena aged 25 years might cost €45 and ‘Extravecchio‘ selling for €75. It will last around two years if used judiciously .Ours at No 19 is coming near to the end after slightly longer and the elixir has become even thicker and more luxurious.
The Coterie has a bottle dated 1785 (at the top of this page). They sample it from time to time and they say, it has only improved with age.
Like the precious White ‘Alba’ Truffle or a true Pesto alla Genovese, Balsamico must never been heated or used in cooking in any way. It is a dressing, there to embellish and be celebrated. Cook any of them and the aromatics fly away as quick as a Ferrari lapping on the nearby Fiorano test track.
Marilyn Monroe may have famously said she wore nothing in bed other than Chanel No 5 – better for us all that the wearer shares the scent at times we might all enjoy. Balsamico Tradizionale is no different.
And there is Heaven on Earth.
The Balsamico Museum is located in the Villa communale Fabriani, via Roncati 28, 41057 Spilamberto (Emilia-Romagna). Worth a visit. www.museodebalsamicotradizionale.org
Bio of Gareth JonesGareth Spencer Jones – a food consultant, cook, traveller, husband and father of two boys. For the past 30 years I have worked with many large and mid-size food companies, as well as consulting with some of the big supermarkets. I have helped shape their vision, improve their products, take on new ideas and generally make a better fist of what they do. It’s far more engaging that this, but here I must be brief. Here’s how I started. I had a Damascene moment when first visiting France as a youngster – a month living with an exchange family who had fled Spain during the Civil War to set up a new life in the Aveyron. Grandma’ had one of the town’s main café bar and we all had our jobs. I began as plongeur and finished the month promoted to garçon. This experience gave me – years later to appreciate – a twist on the story. I’d been raised in a farming household eating well and in season – but eating it was, no more In France with three generations of the Viargues family, I learned to enjoy the best there was and take my time at table. Food is my passion. I eat like a sparrow, but cook like a giant. I have surrounded myself with food people since my teenage years. Dare I say, I am a gastronome. No day passes when I don’t celebrate and thank God for what we have. I have spent time in the best kitchens in France and Belgium, been to market with top chefs. Everything I know is by observation, questioning and a deep desire to know why. I want to share all this with you. I have run culinary workshops for 25 years or more for everyone from the big supermarkets to top food editors – my mission was always to have attendees leaving exclaiming “I didn’t know that” – and saying that at least three times. Knowledge is for sharing, not for harbouring. As to the descriptor above. I am lucky to be married to a fine cook who has travelled extensively through Asia and the America’s. Our two boys are special – they love junk food as much as great food. If only to be their age again.