Since the end of the Middle Ages, records show the presence of a “tart syrup”, vinegar’s precursor, in the areas between Panaro and Secchia, near Modena, and around Reggio. The syrup was used for medicinal purposes, rather than culinary.
The first mention of vinegar used in the kitchen came in 1046, when Henry II stopped in Piacenza on his way to Rome to be crowned Emperor. Bonifacio, the marquis of Tuscany and father of Matilde of Canossa, gave Henry a special vinegar that he heard had turned out very well.
During the Renaissance, noble families were passionate producers and consumers of balsamic vinegar. They would build special vinegar storerooms in the attics of their palaces and keep their bottles of this precious liquid there to age. In the 17th century, the main families of Modena knew about a sort of “dye”, called balsamica, which was thought to be able to bring people back from the dead. This was an exaggeration, of course, but only a slight one, for those who tasted a few drops of real traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena were transformed by its complex balance of aromas: sweet and spicy, velvety but acidic.
Aceto Balsamico DOP
The must used to make the vinegar comes from Lambrusco, Trebbiano and other grape varieties grown in the province of Modena. The must is cooked over low heat until it is quite thick and dark brown. The must is then left to rest, activating the natural fermentation.
The must is then transferred to rooms designed specifically for vinegar production called acetatie.
The rooms are built in the attics of homes where temperatures can drop to freezing during the winter and are scorching during the summer. The humidity caused by the rains and fog is also intense. In these rooms, the cooked must reduces in volume, ages and becomes more refined. 100 liters, or 26 gallons, of must is needed to make a couple liters of traditional balsamic vinegar and it takes at least three years for the must to finish the two phase fermentation process.
The sugar in the must be transformed into alcohol: the vinegar added at the beginning is the catalyst for this process. Even after three years, the vinegar still cannot be considered mature or ready for consumption. Good balsamic vinegar needs to be aged for at least another twelve years before use, and 30 to 50 to be considered sublime. Vinegar that has been aged for more than 25 years is called “extra vecchio”, or super old.
Balsamic vinegar is characterized by its rich dark brown color. It should be shiny and quite dense or syrupy. It should have a nice bouquet of complex, yet well balanced, aromas that are strong and long lasting. It should also have a pleasing, balanced acidity. Its flavor should be well balanced between sweet and sour with noticeable acidity and light aromas from the various types of wood used during the aging process.
Inside the acetaia, the vinegar is not always kept in the same container.
It develops its unique flavor from being poured from one barrel to another: each time using a smaller barrel. The barrel itself corresponds to the age of the vinegar. Ash and oak wood are used for the smallest barrels; chestnut and cherry for the medium-sized; and mulberry wood barrels are the largest and used for the young vinegar. Each vinegar producer has his own practices and techniques, including the various ingredients that are added in very precise amounts during the different phases of production. Vinegar recipes come from centuries of tradition and are kept very secret.
It is possible, however, to identify some of the specific spices added to the vinegar.
Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, coriander and licorice are often used and reflect the typical Renaissance palate. The whole process is carefully calculated based on the season, climate, wind and temperature. At just the right moment, a small amount of vinegar is extracted from the smallest, 10 to 15 liter, barrels using a special glass tool. Immediately, the amount of extracted vinegar is replaces with vinegar from barrels one size up. This processes continues down the line until one arrives at the largest barrels. “New” vinegar, or freshly cooked must, is used to replace the vinegar taken from these barrels. The starters, or “vinegar mothers”, found in the bottom of the barrels are ancient bacteria used to convert the must into vinegar. The mothers have been passed down for centuries and are a precious necessity for traditional balsamic vinegar producers, true masters of a rarified art form.
Once the vinegar has finished aging, it can be bottled in special glass containers with a specific shape. A seal guaranteeing the quality of the product is placed on each bottle and given a number by the Consortium of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Producers. When the word tradizionale is missing from the label and instead says “Aceto Balsamico di Modena”, it means that the vinegar was made from wine, not must, and requires less work during aging. Mass produced balsamic vinegar costs considerably less.
Balsamic vinegar is also made in Reggio Emilia using the same methods as are used in Modena, however the area of production is limitied to the province of Reggio Emilia.
Both the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia have been recognized with the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) stamp from the European Union.