This is real balsamic vinegar: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, a delicious piece of Italian history, preserved and produced by traditional methods.
Let’s cut to the chase: You have probably never had true balsamic vinegar, and that’s unfortunate. You have most likely had some balsamic vinegar over a salad, or had some mixed with olive oil as a bread dip at an Italian restaurant – and you probably really enjoyed it, right? If so, that’s a really good reason to read on and take a trip to Modena, Italy.
History of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena
The whole world knows and uses “balsamic vinegar” because of the original, authentic product – it was amazing, and when the rest of Europe learned about it in the 1700’s, they called it the “black gold” of Modena.
Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena is now a Protected Designation of Origin product, PDO or DOP, a status granted by the EU to only the highest quality traditional products. However, people have been producing it in the region of Modena for thousands of years. Virgil, the Roman poet of the first century BC, wrote of traditional balsamic vinegar production over 2,000 years ago!
“Balsam” means healthy in this sense. It has found many medicinal uses through the ages, but the aceto has no balsam plant in it.
So what is it?
Grape juice – and time. That is it.
There are no other ingredients, no additives, nothing unnatural. It must be prepared according to specific methods, and it must come from the area of Modena, Italy.
There are seven types of authorized grapes, but the most common are Trebbiano and Lambrusco. They boil the grape juice and leave it for five years to slowly acidify in large vats; after that, they transfer to a bateria, a series of 7 progressively smaller barrels. It spends a year in each barrel.
The barrels are made from seven types of wood: mulberry, black locust, cherry, oak, juniper, chestnut, and ash. Each wood imparts its essence to the aceto, resulting in flavor and color changes over the year.
It is essential that the barrels experience all four seasons. Each season exerts specific changes on the flavors of the aceto, so the barrels stay in attics, not cellars. This means that a substantial amount of aceto evaporates during the heat of summer, and is why the barrels get smaller each year.
During the coldest part of winter, when the aceto is least active, a special process takes place. Most of the aceto from each barrel transfers to the next smallest barrel. A barrel never completely empties, and the remaining aceto helps the newly-transferred aceto deepen its flavor.
Only after 5 years of ageing in a vat and 7 years in the barrels do we finally get a final product: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. It has become more viscous over the years; the smell is well-rounded; the flavor is unparalleled and rich.
Once the aceto has aged for at least 25 years, it receives a simple designation: EXTRA VECCHIO, or extra-old.
What is this not?
This is not fake. It’s not an imitation, it’s not artificial, and it definitely isn’t cheap.
Note the difference: Aceto Balsamico di Modena, the industrial product sold around the world, is produced at a commercial level. Companies don’t produce it in Modena, although some of the grape juice in it comes from the region. The companies churn it out at a rapid pace. They mix in sugar, thickeners, wine vinegar and other additives in an attempt to mimic the real deal.
Why should I care?
Because Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is delicious – and it’s an honest, exceptional piece of Italian culture.
Sofia turned her father’s hobby of producing Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena into her passionate career. She now runs Acetaia Malagoli Daniele, and it was an honor to finally experience true aceto balsamico at her family’s farm after a wonderful tour and lesson in history.
I had been wanting to try authentic aceto balsamico for over a decade, and when Sofia found out it meant so much to me, she brought me to one of the Extra Vecchio barrels and had me dip my finger inside. The thick, dark liquid was everything that I could have imagined and more – I felt emotional as the flavors ran across my palate, and I can never imagine accepting a substitute again.
Speaking of which, how do I tell that it’s real?
- It is only sold in these Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed 100ml bottles.
- You’ll never see anything mentioned on the bottle about age in numbers – remember, a portion of Extra Vecchio may be 25 years old, but some of it may be much older because it always mixes with some older aceto.
- There are multiple seals and labels declaring it to be “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” – look for the “Tradizionale” and DOP certification.
- The only ingredient is “Cooked grape must.”
If it is more or less than 100ml, or states it’s 40 or 50 or however many years, or doesn’t match every requirement listed above – it’s a fake.
What is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena?
It is natural grape juice.
It is at least 12 years of sunrises and sunsets – of spring, summer, fall and winter.
It is natural wood, sometimes from barrels that are hundreds of years old, imparting scores of flavors from seven different types of trees.
It is passion, dedication and tradition – decades of someone caring enough to provide a home for the barrels, to patiently and carefully transfer the precious liquid from one barrel to the next, and to protect it from any compromise in quality.
And it is worth it.