1046. Northern Italy… The Holy Roman Emperor Henry III was en route to his own coronation.
Passing through the town of Modena he was given a gift, a token of respect from Bonifacio, the Marquis of Tuscany: it was a little barrel of ‘celebrated vinegar,’ a thick, sweet elixir taken locally as a tonic after meals.
It’s believed that the vinegar was already famous by the time Bonificio gave a barrel to the Emperor in 1046. But we don’t see the word balsamico enter recorded history until a quite a while later.
In the 1700s, it starts to appear in cellar ledgers and letters between Italian aristocrats, including one from the famous composer Giaochino, thanking a friend for sending him a bottle to cure his scurvy.
The name balsamico is derived from the Italian, balsamo, which is defined as ‘healing ointment’ and the Latin balsamam, meaning ‘restorative’ or ‘curative.’
There was so much faith in balsamic’s healing properties, that in 1707, it featured in a public health bulletin titled, Controlling Bubonic Plague and How to Guard Against It.
Modena is a small city in Northern Italy that punches above its weight creatively. Food wise, it’s given us balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, prosciutto and Lambruso wine.
It’s most famous for its motor industry, being the home of Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and several more…as if that wasn’t enough, it’s also the hometown of the most famous tenor of them all, Luciano Pavarotti.
Is there something in the water? Or is it all that curative vinegar that gets creative juices flowing? There’ve been no studies into that, but, who’s to say it can be completely discounted as a factor?
As Alessandro, our long-term balsamic partner since 1997, says: “In Modena people eat balsamic vinegar every day, with every type of meal. Green salad, pasta, meat, fish. There’s even an ice cream shop that specialises in traditional balsamic ice cream… I think that’s a bit too much!”
There’s saying in Modena: “He who starts the vinegar will not taste the vinegar, but his children and children’s children will.”
This sums up the time and care that goes into making Balsamic the traditional way – which hasn’t changed a great deal since the last days of Rome.
This ancient process is protected by the EU Law of Protected Designation Origin (PDO), which guarantees not just where a product comes from, but the exact way it is made, to the letter.
A distinct feature of the Modena climate is the hot, humid summers and intensely cold, but still very humid winters.
These temperature swings are crucial to the ageing and development of the vinegar, as they create a natural process of concentration and purification.
The effect is especially pronounced up in the loft space, so that’s where balsamico is made – in attics, always with the windows open, in barrels without stoppers.
As Allesandro says “The barrels follow the season. In summer, it’s 35-40 degrees, that’s the time of evaporation and concentration, and also fermentation.
“In September or October, with the new grape harvest, we put in the new cooked must. In winter, at nearly zero degrees, we have decanting, and purification. It’s natural purification, all impurities drop down, right to the bottom of the barrel.”
Balsamic uses two kinds of grapes: Trebbiano (white) and Lambrusco (red). Trebbiano’s sweetness is balanced out by Lambrusco’s characteristic acidity. The ratio is around 70:30, but it’s adjusted sometimes, to offset any season-by-season changes in the tartness of that particular year’s crop.
The grapes must be hand picked, to control the threat of bruising. Damaged skins are prone to mould – and the merest hint of mould can ruin the entire batch.
The next step is crushing the grapes into must. In Latin, vinum mustum means ‘young wine’: wine buffs among you will know that must is also the first stage in making wine. After crushing, the grapes are cooked down for days, creating a thick, black, caramelised must – then the skin and seeds are filtered out.
An attic contains lines of barrels, known as a battery: each has between 5 or 10 in a row.
The first barrel is the largest; from there each is progressively smaller than the last – a bit like Russian dolls, but not inside each other – right down to the end one, that has just a few litres in it.
Each barrel in the sequence contains increasingly older vinegar. For fear of impurities being unsettled and rising up from the bottom of the barrel, which would tarnish the vinegar, working barrels are never ever, moved. The vinegar, however, gets moved around a lot.
When late autumn comes, around ¼ of the contents of the smallest barrel is ‘harvested’ and bottled. The space in the barrel is filled from its more capacious next-door neighbour, and so the process continues right the way back down the line.
Each ‘topping up’ is called a travassi – some vinegars see a hundred travassi before being deemed ready. This can take up to 25 years.
The barrels have no stoppers, just a gauze to keep flies and dust out. Around 10% a year evaporates – it’s a key part of the process. In Modena, they call it “The angel’s share.”
All this legal protection and set-in-stone process is to protect the reputation of the product and producers. But with great reputation comes great responsibility. There are exacting standards to be met, and a governing body to impress: the Consortio Tutela Aceto Balsamico de Modena.
Only the Consortio is allowed to bottle up the balsamic – and of course, before they put their name to it, they want to taste it. They’re looking for a bright clarity, a slightly acidic aroma with woody overtones and a bittersweet, balanced taste.
Allesandro talked us through it, “It’s not much different than a wine or olive oil tasting, but here the consortio know exactly what they are looking for, the main things: Density. Acidity…and balance.
“First when we taste, we must listen to our taste buds. First, listen for sweetness, then the sweetness must decrease. Afterwards comes the acidity. There must a balance of these two points.”
He then takes a pen in hand, drawing a simple graph with a nice smooth bell curve, explaining how the flavours should fade into one another…and conversely, how a sharp jump from one extreme to the other mean either a too young product, or a very bad one.
Allesandro continues, “With the density, it should be shining like a mirror – looking at the balsamico, it should give you light. If not, that means it dirty, it has impurities. Each of the 10 tasters has 25 points they can give – if the combined total is above 235, only then can it be bottled up.”
Of course, the global market for £1 per millilitre celebrated vinegar does have its limits, so most producers also make more affordable vinegar too.
The ancient method of making Balsamic vinegar takes a very long time. Most of the balsamic we sell takes a more modern approach – but not by much. There’s just one extra ingredient: red wine vinegar.
A good few glugs of good wine vinegar kick-starts the fermentation process and gets the years until maturity down into single digits! That means you can make really great quality balsamic in less than five years (if you’re a Modena master craftsman, that is).
How much red wine vinegar used varies from blend to blend. A balsamic designed to be runnier – for use on green salads for example – will have a higher concentration of wine vinegar and fewer years in the barrel.
This makes a less dense, more liquid vinegar with quite a different taste to the Aceto Traditionazale Balsamico.
Density is crucial to understanding Balsamic: it’s the most reliable indicator of flavour. As a rule, the less dense the fluid, more acidity on the palate.
Conversely, 35% thicker than water is as high as density can go before the natural sugars in the grapes begin to crystallise and turn solid. So science says, around 1.34 /1.35 density is the sweetest and stickiest it’s possible to get…it really wears its shirt with style.
Our 1.34 balsamico di Modena maturing away in the barrels
That’s a complex question, because of the way it’s made.
Using red wine vinegar to make balsamic disqualifies it being registered under PDO, as PDO protects only the most ancient knowhow. But there are other statutes that empower specific regions to call a product theirs and theirs alone.
Balsamic di Modena is protected under IGP (protected geographical indication). This is slightly different to PDO as it guarantees geographical origin and implies quality of craftsmanship, but allows for more modern approaches, i.e. using red wine vinegar to speed things up.
We never talk about the age of the IGP balsamic as it’s prohibited under EU law. The reason is that the batches are blended, just like the ancient way. Only by mixing and matching can we consistently arrive at the correct flavour and density, with the same sticky texture and signature profile you expect.
That’s actually the larger part of the craftsmanship – and precisely why we can’t talk about age. Some elements of a bottle of 1.34 might be three years old, others four, others two…it’s impossible to keep track of.
Even the craftsmen don’t know with absolute certainty – they’re artisan food makers, not algorithm programmers – so it wouldn’t be proper to state any particular time in the barrel.
It’s pretty safe to say that for really good quality, sticky, sweet balsamic like ours, it’s not usually worth blending with barrels aged for less than two years, but if for some reason a barrel reached maturity a couple of months early, if the craftsmen tasted it and deemed it ready, it may have a part to play and be drafted into the mix.
Essentially, it’s case of “it’s not how young or old you are… it’s how good you are!”
Condimento is the same process as our sticky sweet balsamic, but with white grapes and wine vinegar.
It’s not allowed to be called a balsamic under EU law because it’s just one step too far for the law-makers, but it’s got a taste all its own. It’s quite winey at the beginning, then sweet in the middle with an acidic tang at the end.
Yes, it breaks the rules of balsamic but who doesn’t like to break the rules every now and again?
A range of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is available