Balsamic Vinegar is an exceptional condiment, born in Italy and produced only there, exclusively in the areas of the Cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia, both located in the Emilia Romagna Region. This precious liquid is the result of an ancient recipe handed down from generation to generation. Its production is strictly artisanal, Although presently there are also some industrial productions available in all supermarkets at reasonable prices. Its use in traditional dishes of Italian and Emilian Cuisine is very common today. Often it is poured on meat, paired with cheeses (especially Parmesan), poured into salad, rice dishes, sweets, fruits and various other dishes. Compared to classic vinegar, this product has very different texture and also different taste. The classic vinegar has a strong flavor, sour, tending to acid, and is much more liquid, while the balsamic vinegar is much more delicate, slightly sweet-and-sour and more viscous. A few drops of balsamic vinegar can greatly enhance many dishes. The Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena has obtained the European Certficate PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and the Balsamic one has obtained the Certificate PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), while that from Reggio Emilia has been certified PDO. Therefore, if you decide to buy a bottle of Balsamic Vinegar to use on your dishes, you can buy it directly on-line from real Italian producers, where possible, or going to specialty stores where you can find the real Italian Balsamic Vinegar. Many balsamic vinegar imitations are daily sold in supermarkets around the World; they have nothing to do with the wonderful taste of the original product, and many people who think they are acquainted with Balsamic Vinegar, probably have never tasted it.
History of the Balsamic Vinegar
The Traditional Balsamic Vinegar has very ancient roots. The Romans already prepared a very rough version, in the form of a sweet condiment called “Sapa”, obtained by boiling the grape juice. Its name,indeed, derives from the Latin word “Balsamum”, which means “balm”, because some healing and soothing properties were often associated to this elisir. Later on, with the advent of the wooden barrels, the Balsamic Vinegar became much more refined. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1000 AD-1500 AD) the Estensis family, who ruled Emilia Romagna from the Cities of Ferrara and Modena, introduced the product in the whole area. In 1700 AD, the Balsamic vinegar, aged in wooden barrels, was already known to powerful families from all over Europe, thanks to the publicity made by the Archduke Francis IV° of Modena. When the Estensis family lost its power, being banned from Modena, the Balsamic Vinegar has almost been forgotten, both in Europe and in Italy. Only in Emilia, between the Cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia, this amazing product’s tradition remained alive . This elisir continued to be handcraftly produced in the villas of the gentry of the area, given as a dowry in marriages and jealously guarded. The complex techniques and the secrets of its manufacture were handed from generation to generation. The batteries of old barrels were stored in the attics of the manor houses of the Emilian countryside, where, over the centuries, the taste of grape juice got mixed with that of the wood ,more and more, giving back wonderful combinations.
Production Process of Balsamic Vinegar
The production process followed by each family business is always mysterious and secret; a Modena’s aphorism tells that the vinegar begins with grandfather but it’s only his grandson who will appreciate its flavor. The production process is similar to that of winemaking. It uses the fermented juice of local grapes: Lambrusco, Ancellotta, Trebbiano di Spagna, Sauvignon, Berzemino, Cat’s Eyes, etcetera. The grape juice, resulting from its crushing, must have the right sugar content; when that content is the right one, it is boiled (at a temperature of 90 degrees to avoid to burn it ) in large opened pots made of steel or copper. This slow process must be done no later than 24 hours after the grapes’ pressing. The resulting product is a very concentrated must, that, after being obtained, is subsequently purified from foam and debris risen to the surface, and then poured into large wooden buckets and allowed to cool. Once cooled, the product is poured into carboys and stored, at rest, until the next spring, when it is filtered again and put into the wooden barrels. The barrels are generally placed in the attic, where the climatic conditions (high heat in the summer to make the vinegar evaporate and mature, and freezing cold in the winter to help its condensation ), and ventilation are ideal. They vary in size and are arranged in descending order from the largest to the smallest, often made of different woods to give back different flavors. The number of barrels and the kind of wood used in the process depend on the type and quantity of vinegar that manufacturer wants to make. Often the softer wood, such as chestnut is used in large barrels because these wood promotes evaporation and acidification of the must, while hardwood, which promotes the strenghtening, is mostly used in small barrels. And, as a matter of fact, it’s into the larger barrels that the first fermentation takes place and where additions of other boiled must are made, while in the intermediate barrels maturation occurs, and finally the mature vinegar is aged into the small barrels. Every year, starting from the smallest barrel, some top ups of must, taken from the previous barrel, are made, right to fill the decrease caused by evaporation; this process starts from the smallest and arrives to the largest, and when the last barrel is reached, its filling is made with young must, boiled in autumn. The aging process begins and lasts for many years. The product is bottled in small ampoules, never less than 12 years old, often 25 years and some bottles exceed the 50 years of aging, but their cost can be very high.
Kinds of woods used in the barrels’ crafting
The timbers the barrels are made of have different properties, which are very important in enhancing specific tastes into the Vinegar. The timbers most commonly used in the barrels’ production are: cherry, juniper, mulberry, oak and chestnut. The timbers of mulberry and cherry are sweet and tender, and give Vinegar a very delicate flavor; the juniper timber is instead very aromatic, and gives Vinegar a strong flavour; the oak is harder and stronger and makes Vinegar condense; the chestnut timber,finally, dark, soft and porous, is often used to help starting the process of acidification and to color the product.
Certificates PDO (Protected Designation of Origin)
- The products under this designation are the ones that are affected mostly by the place where they grew and/or were produced, or the French concept of terroir, that is, a sense of place identifiable in the flavor, perfume and/or texture of the food. PDO products must be produced, processed, and prepared in a specific region using traditional production methods. The raw materials must also be from the defined area whose name the product bears. The products’ quality or characteristics must be due essentially or exclusively to their place of origin, i.e., climate, the nature of the soil, and local know-how. Examples are Kalamata olives, Prosciutto di Parma, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. (In Italian this designation is DOP for food and DOC for wines).
PGI (Protected Geographical Indication)
- This category allows for some freedom compared to PDO, however the products in this category must be either produced, processed, or prepared in the geographical region mentioned on the label. It is not mandatory that the materials used grow or be produced in the designated area, it is necessary that at least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation occurred in the defined area. Such flexible links to the place allow the producer to focus on a specific quality, reputation, or other characteristics that can be linked to that geographical origin. (In Italian this designation is IGP for food and IGT for wines).