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Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena

Emmanuelle Jary-2008-04-21

Every cook knows balsamic vinegar of Modena, but only a privileged few have sampled traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. That one extra word on the label signifies a world of difference in the kitchen.

In the lovely city of Modena, located in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, the attics of certain houses are infused with history and passion. In this town, the space under the rooftops is where time works its best magic - the transformation of wine into vinegar - since the summer heat there is conducive to the condiment’s ripening. Modena vinegar must age for 12 to 25 years, or more, if it is to receive the tradizionale label.
We are following Giorgio Barbieri, whose family has been making vinegar in the garret for several generations. The family passion for this liquid is hereditary - it was Giorgio’s grandmother who taught him the slow process of vinegar-making. What are the rules? ‘There aren’t any. Each house produces vinegar as they please. It can be more or less fruity or astringent. There is, however, one steadfast rule: if it is to be traditional, the product must reach a point of harmony. If it hasn’t been reached after 25 years, the process continues. In Modena, time is not chronological - it’s sensory.’
This point of harmony, or balance - a notion which is anything but subjective here in Modena - is attained thanks to a very precise procedure. Vinegar is produced in barrels of varying sizes, from 15 to 60 litres. Whilst a minimum of five barrels are involved in the production of a 12-year-old vintage, ten, eleven or more barrels (following the inspiration of the vinegar maker) may be used for the extravecchio vinegar that is at least 25 years old. Every year, part of the liquid - a ‘must’ made from pressed white trebbiano hill grapes - is decanted from larger barrels to smaller ones.
Each barrel is made from a different wood: cherry gives a fruity flavour; oak gives a hint of vanilla during the first twenty years; chestnut provides tannins. The wood is also chosen on the basis of its density; softer woods, like mulberry, allow for more evaporation and are used in the beginning of the process, whereas hard woods, such as ash, are used towards the end to encourage concentration.
The result, velvety vinegar in the form of black, aromatic syrup, is worth a fortune - the 10 cl bottles (around 3.5 ounces) go for €80 to €100 in Italy.
More than a simple cooking ingredient, traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is perhaps above all a symbol of culture. Indeed, in olden times and still in some families, it could represent a young bride’s dowry. Nowadays, it may be used to season red berries or sautéed foie gras - but for the true connoisseur, a few drops in a spoon do the trick. These black beads are the flavour of time gone by, the essence of the savoir-faire of those men and women who devote their lives to tradition, and a taste of every fragrance of the forest. It is, without a doubt, a small spoonful of eternity.
Giorgio Barbieri
Via cabassi, 67
41100 Modena, Italy
Tel: (39) 059 33 30 15
Consorzio tra produttori di aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena
Via Ganaceto, 134
41100 Modena, Italy
Tel: (39) 059 39 56 33

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