The hardest part about sampling so much good food is that it’s almost impossible to go back to eating the everyday stuff.
I challenge anyone who’s flecked a bit of fleur de sel across their food to go back to ordinary table salt. I took one taste of the cloud-like, billowy chocolate-enrobed marshmallows from Pierre Marcolini and now I can’t seem to get enough.
My first experience with real, true balsamic vinegar goes back to the time I worked with Paul Bertolli at Chez Panisse. Every so often he’d ask me for the key to the liquor cabinet (which, for some reason, I was entrusted with) and he’d pull out his little dark bottle of brown, viscous syrup.
A breathless hush would fall over the kitchen, and he would tenderly drip a few precious drops onto the dinner plates with great reverence. Although that liquor cabinet got pilfered on perhaps one too many occasions, mostly involving after-work fresh fruit daiquiris for the staff (I was definitely not the person to entrust with the key), I never did touch that little bottle.
It scared me.
So when planning my visit to the Emilia-Romania region, I decided I would be so close to Modena, it would be a shame not to visit and see what all the fuss was about. I sent a message to the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena who was happy to provide me with a glimpse of the process of making traditional balsamic vinegar.
I could not have been luckier to spend the morning with Giovanna Cati-Barbieri and her husband Giorgio, who may be the tallest man in Italy. Giovanna took me up to their cellar where rows of barrels are lined up, where her vinegars are aged and stored. In fact, tucked away in the attics of many residents of this city are similar wooden barrels, some hundreds of years old, where families privately make their own batches of vinegar, as they’ve been doing for generations.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is not to be confused with industrial balsamic vinegar, the acidic brown water that costs 2 bucks at the supermarket. It’s like comparing Ye Olde Log Cabin to pure, deep-dark maple syrup: there’s simply is no comparison. Giovanna, like others in town, follows traditional methods to make her balsamic vinegars, a process that’s strictly regulated and has both DOC (Denominazione di Origin Controllata) and DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) designations which ensure the 80 member consortium of local producers follow specific quality-assured guidelines.
You need to have a lot of patience to make true balsamico and many of Giovanna’s barrels are stamped with her daughter’s name in hopes she’ll carry on the tradition. Although you can find balsamic that’s younger, only balsamic vinegars that are aged 12 or 25 years get certification. And as those of us getting into our advanced years, there’s certainly a good argument for the gifts that age has bestowed upon us. But more importantly, aside from the certifications and designations, these balsamic vinegars are without a doubt one of the best-tasting things you’re ever liable to put in your mouth.
The process of making balsamic begins in October of each year with just-picked Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes. If the grapes sit for any period of time, they’ll begin to ferment, so they’re cooked right away, but to a temperature no higher than 194 degrees (90 C), which is enough to release their juices but not to cook away any of the flavor. This year, 2006, was exceptionally good for the grapes, since the heatwave concentrated the natural sugars in the grapes.
Once the grape must has been cooked, the juice is cooled, filtered, then stored in barrels, which are never filled more than 3/4’s full. Giovanna uses many different types of wood, mostly castagno but also ginepro (juniper) and ciliegia (cherry), to make special reserve vinegars, since the wood imparts a fine flavor to the balsamico.
As the vinegar ages and evaporates over the years, the vinegar gets transferred from the large ‘mother’ barrel to smaller ones, gradually and systematically, over a period of several years. If you’re lucky, some day you’ll get a chance to taste vinegar that’s over 100 years old. It’s a rare treat.
As Giovanna explained, “Balsamico is a life philosophy” since the techniques get handed down by word-of-mouth, and it takes more than just reading a recipe to know how to make the vinegars; when they must be decanted, how to monitor the evaporation, and evaluationing the vinegar at various times throughout the aging process. Giovanna also explained that the barrels are used like a dowry, handed down to daughters from generation-to-generation. She’s hoping her daughter will want to carry on the tradition as well. I hope so too.
Afterwards, Giovanna led me through a tasting of her vinegars, starting with a 12-year old bottle designated by a white cap, which was grape-y, tart, and pungent-sweet. It would be perfect to drizzle over carpaccio or shards of aged Parmesan cheese. Her 25-year old with a gold cap, was far fruitier, stickier, and with less acidity and more beguiling complexity.
Then she brought out the big guns: a tray of very special bottles, including her 25-year old reserve balsamic aged in cherry wood, which I immediately envisioned dripping over a vanilla-flavored panna cotta, then I tasted another 25-year old balsamic vinegar aged in juniper wood barrels, which she said should only be served over something “very important”, like venison or red meat.
After several delectable spoonfuls, I was starting to swoon, wondering why I had lived so long without making aceto balsamico an essential item in my pantry? Well, I’m sure it had something to do with the cost; a small bottle will set one back at least $25. But since you’re just using just a few drops at a time (don’t you dare mix it into salad dressing), maybe ½ teaspoon, it’s merely a few cents per serving. So I tucked several bottles, packed very well, in my suitcase which thankfully made it back to my Parisian pad in one piece.
In spite of the price, a stingy few drops are all you need to make a very big impact. And never mind the photo…I asked them to keep pouring, feigning trouble with my camera, so they’d keep the precious liquid flowing. But I do recommend for newbies to try a bottle that’s at least 12-years old, as there’s a substantial difference between a thin, rather uninteresting 10-year old balsamic vinegar and a luscious, velvety 12- or 25-year old. The consortium of balsamic producers use a special bottle, designed by race car designer Giugiaro, to designate the provenance of their vinegars. Incidentally, it’s the same creative team that designs cars for a well-known, very famous Italian factory nearby, too.
The sad news is that now I’ve developed a taste of the good life, especially for true aceto balsamico, and have been tipping it over everything around here. But balsamico is also good with fresh figs, soft young goat cheese, shards of pecorino or Parmesan cheese, dark chocolate, gnocchi, and tortellini filled with sweet butternut squash.
Acetaia di Giorgio
Via Cabassi, 67
Visits can be arrange by telephone or through their web site and Giovanna speaks English. Reasonably-priced, secure international shipping is available as well.
To learn more about balsamic vinegar in Modena, visit the web site for the Consorzio Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.
Modena is a easy train ride from Florence, and the trip takes about 20 minutes making it a perfect day excursion. To visit the balsamic producers, call in advance and you’ll need to rent a car or take a taxi. The New York Times recently wrote an excellent article about the region as well.
Another, larger producer of traditional balsamic vinegar is Acetaia Bompana. Visits can be arranged in English or French as well.
Be sure to visit the Mercato Coperto Albinelli. This wrought iron-covered daily market is a must-see and is one of the best in the world. Open until 2pm.
Via Rismondo, 55
Modest lodging, smack-dab in the center of town, on a quiet street.
Piazza XX Settembre, 34
Simple, contemporary foods. Great lunch spot for pasta and salads, with wine bar for early evening drinks. Next to market.
Trattoria da Omer
Via Torre, 33
Pastas and simple trattoria fare.
Ristorante da Danilo
Via Coltellini, 31
Regional cuisine, including bollito misto, boiled meat dinners, dished up almost tableside. The ravioli di zucca, plump squash ravioli, are excellent.
Vicolo Squallore, 46
Tiny salumeria with a few tables hidden in the back.