Discover how Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico di Modena in Italian) is made from grape picking to the ageing process. A labour of love following century-old traditions.
Balsamic vinegar of Modena is a staple in my kitchen, a dear friend I got to know from a young age.
My dad loves it, and he uses it to dress lettuce, tomatoes, and finely sliced beetroots. Aceto balsamico was part of every meal as I grew up. I am now so dependent on its taste that to me a salad is incomplete without it.
It is a ruby black dense vinegar with a sweet-sour taste. In addition to dress salads with it, you can also use it to elevate a risotto, experiment with yoghurt, have a quick aperitivo with cubes of parmesan cheese, or with juicy strawberries for a decadent dessert.
I was so ecstatic when aceto balsamico started to spread all over the UK too! I could finally have proper salad again.
Back to the origins: Modena
This Summer we visited Emilia Romagna, a region in central Italy. We simply had to stop by Modena, the city that invented the ancient velvety condiment.
A couple of days ago, Riccardo and I were lucky enough to visit Acetaia Leonardi, a historical family-led farm producing balsamic vinegar from the pick-up of grapes up to the bottling.
This post will bring you along with us to the Acetaia. Together, we will discover how the ancient balance of sweet and sour came to be.
An ancient balance of sweet and sour
Aceto Balsamico was invented in 1046 and it can only be produced in a very small area of the world: the counties of Modena and Reggio Emilia, in central Italy. That’s why there is only a limited quantity available.
These areas have a unique climate: chilling cold in winter and humid hot in summer. The cold months allow the vinegar to age, while the hot months trigger the fermentation.
It’s a labour of love, the minimum maturation of vinegar is 60 days but at Acetaia Leonardi they also have up to 150-year-old aged vinegar.
We tasted a 100-year-old aged vinegar with an unforgettable flavour, sweet and mellow. I wish I could have a little teaspoon of it every night after dinner for dessert!
The two balsamic siblings
Our guide explained to us that there are two types of balsamic vinegar (shocking!):
The first type is PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) – it’s the one we are more familiar with and cheaper in price. It is made of grape must mixed with a minimum 10% of wine vinegar and a discretionary amount of at least 10-year-old aged vinegar.
The second type is POD (Protected Designation of Origin)– a luxurious condiment only made of grape juice, cooked at 30°C, and naturally fermented for a minimum of 12 years in a minimum of 12 different wooden barrels.
How it is made
I never fully realised how much work is put into my favourite condiment.
At Acetaia Leonardi, they pick up the grapes by hand in September. They squeeze the grape with a ‘soft system’. Then the grape must (that they call Saba) is filtered.
Unlike wine, you don’t want the must to immediately ferment so you cook the must within 24 hours for around 2 days. At this point, you let the must rest till after Christmas.
Now a matryoshka operation (as I decided to call it but officially named the ‘ageing period’) begins. The must is transferred into a wooden barrel. This barrel is open to let the liquid naturally evaporate but also to give oxygen to bacteria and activate the slow fermentation.
Every year, the liquid is transferred into a new barrel. Around a quarter of the remaining liquid is left in its original barrel while the rest of it is transferred into a smaller barrel together with a quarter of a one-year older liquid.
The presence of an older liquid enables the fermentation, think of it like liquid sourdough. The transfer always happens in winter when the vinegar is sleeping due to the cold temperatures.
There is a constant movement of liquid from bigger to smaller barrels, hence a matryoshka operation. Each century-old barrel is made of a different wood (oak, juniper, cherry, chestnut and more!), each wood passes on its flavours to the vinegar. The transfer is a very complex operation followed century-old traditions and directed by the mastro acetaio (literally translated as the master of vinegar).
Checks and tests are constantly carried out by vinegar tasters (my new dream job) to make sure the vinegar is ageing well.
Rules, rules, rules everywhere
This vinegar is so special that even the way it’s bottled is regulated. Rules are very rigid, for example, POD Balsamic Vinegar can only be sold in an ‘ampoule shaped’ bottle designed by Guigiaro of 100 ml, while PGI can only be sold in bottles of 250 ml minimum.
As I said, it is a labour of love, every detail is thought of and taken care of.
Have you ever tried Balsamic Vinegar of Modena?
Balsamic vinegar is becoming more and more common abroad and I couldn’t be happier as more people can now enjoy this treasure from such an extraordinarily fertile land (the same one that invented pasta, parmesan cheese, bolognese sauce, and much much more!).
And you? Have you ever tried Balsamic Vinegar from Modena? It’s so versatile and handy to have it at home. After you open the bottle, it officially lasts for 10 years, but you could actually keep it forever – provided that you don’t run out of it after a month like me!
Note: In a world of sponsored content, a friend suggested to specify this post is only sponsored by genuine love for this incredible product.
A special thanks to Acetaia Leonardi and their wonderful guide, you can find out more on their story and step-by-step process on their website.