Troy and I choose Modena as one of our main stops in Italy because we want to see how the experts make balsamic vinegar (and also taste the BEST balsamic vinegar in the world). FYI, balsamic vinegar is made in this particular region of Italy ONLY and is called “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena”. It must have this exact name and the approval of the Italian consortium to be real balsamic vinegar.
To see the process first hand, we visit Fattoria Uccelliera and a mutual friend Maria Grazia Manfredini who goes by Grazia (or Grace to us). Grace shares her family secrets and teaches us how her vinegar factory has perfected the art of making traditional balsamic vinegar.
Creating balsamic vinegar starts with a row of barrels called a battaria. There can be 5-7 barrels in a battaria and they increase in size down the row. Grace’s battarias have six barrels containing 10, 20, 25, 30, 40 and 50 liters respectively. The wood varies between oak, ash, chestnut and cherry depending on the desired flavor.
Step 1: Clean barrels with strong vinegar, salt and water
Step 2: Make mosto (or must in English)
Must is boiled grape juice. Grace uses Salamino grapes which are also used to make Lambrusco wine. This step occurs right after the fall harvest. Squeeze the grapes and boil the juice until the concentration of sugar in the juice is 1 percent (usually when the liquid reduces to half its original amount).
Step 3: Fill battaria with must
Completely fill all barrels with must. If there is not enough liquid in the barrel, the enzymes will not activate and cannot transform the sugar into acid. Let the battaria breathe by securing a mesh cloth over the opening of each barrel. This allows the liquid to evaporate and reduce.
Step 4: Replace evaporated must
The following spring, replace the liquid in each barrel. Fill the smallest barrel with must from the next largest barrel. Continue down the line of barrels replacing liquid with the next largest barrel until you arrive at the largest barrel. Fill the largest barrel with new must (that has been saved from the fall harvest). Only the big barrel gets new must.
Step 5: Continue refilling the barrels each spring with must.
Step 6: Optional
After 5 years you may take 1 liter from the smallest barrel to sell, but you may not sell it as traditional balsamic vinegar because it is not 12 years old nor is it approved by the consortium. At this point you may continue to take 1 liter per year from the smallest barrel.
Step 7: After 12 years, send your vinegar to the Italian consortium for approval
After 12 years, you may send 1 liter from the smallest barrel to the consortium. If approved, your balsamic vinegar will come back to you in 100ml bottles with official approval labels. Now and only now have you made traditional balsamic vinegar.
TO MAKE SURE YOU ARE BUYING REAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR, LOOK FOR:
• The official name Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena
• Few natural ingredients (knock-offs often have long ingredient lists)
• Consortium label (vertical label over the seal)
• Consortium bottle. The consortium has specific bottles for traditional balsamic vinegar depending on the year. Troy’s photo shows the official 12 year consortium bottle and label.
I am floored by the time, care and patience required in this process. The prize is worth it, however. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is thick, rich, sweet, sour, complex and sends me.
One drop can change your life. It did mine. My friend Ed Erickson served balsamic vinegar from Modena at a dinner party in Chicago several years back (after he brought it back from a trip to Italy). He drizzled it over vanilla ice cream and I was forever hooked (try it on strawberries to impress your friends too.) I didn’t know it then, but that moment led Troy and I all the way to Fattoria Uccelliera. Thank you Ed. And thank you Grace and Rampons. We are so lucky to have another culinary dream fulfilled!
Next… Troy and I taste this deliciousness. Balsamic recipes coming soon as well.