Italian Black Gold – The traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

Many of us use Balsamic Vinegar on a regular basis, but I wonder how many people realize that unless you are Italian, or live in Italy, you have probably never even tasted the “Real Thing”, and that bottle of Balsamic in your pantry bears little resemblance to Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, so highly valued in Italy.

True Balsamic is an Artisan product which has been made in Modena for hundreds of years. It is not just a mature wine vinegar as many may think, but is made completely differently from regular wine vinegars. Traditionally, the process would start with the birth of a baby girl; that season a new batch of Balsamic would be started, destined to finally become her dowry.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena by Rainer Zenz

The raw ingredient still comes from the vine, but fresh Must, (juice) is used to create Balsamic. The juice from Trebbiano grapes (sometimes Lambrusco grapes are added) is first simmered for a lengthy period to reduce and concentrate the liquid.

Thereafter it is allowed to ferment and is then matured for at least 12 years. It starts the maturation in a large wooden cask, and slowly, slowly, year by year is transferred to a different, smaller casks. A variety of woods are used for the casks, such as cherry wood, ash, oak, mulberry and even juniper, each of which imparts its own particular flavour to the liquid.

During the maturation process a portion evaporates from the casks (the Angel’s share) allowing the vinegar to become thicker and syrup-like. The maturation process has to be a minimum of 12 years in order to earn the prestigious “Tradizionale” label, or D.O.P. designation, but some Balsamics are matured for a much longer time.

The older products are never used for cooking… heat would seriously damage the exceptional flavour; rather a drop or two are used to enhance the flavour of cheese, prosciutto or fresh fruits, such as strawberries. It is also sometimes sipped after dinner as a digestive aid.

Barrels of balsamic vinegar
Barrels of balsamic vinegar by Guam

There are many different “classes” of Balsamic, based mainly on length of maturation and Modena uses different coloured caps to indicate the age, starting with a cream top for 12 year old and progressing to a magenta cap earned by a product which is over 25 years old. It is very expensive!! You could easily expect to pay $100 for the small bottle.

To get back to that bottle of Balsamic most of us have in the pantry: it is most likely to be Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP, a modern and cheaper version of the traditional product. To keep the costs down, the vinegar is made from a combination of grape Must and Wine vinegar.

It is not matured, so does not have any benefit from wooden casks, and is often therefore flavoured with caramel and thickened to more closely resemble its’ more famous relative. Although not in the same class as its’ illustrious brother, it s still a good product, distinct from wine and cider vinegars, and is used extensively in salad dressings, marinades and all manner of flavoured reductions and glazes.

While you are in Italy you can visit a traditional Balsamic vinegar producer and see for yourself how this fabulous product is made. Don’t miss it!

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