By virtue of it no longer being the 1950s, most people in the UK know what balsamic vinegar is. It has fast become a staple in many a middle-class household cupboard, whipped out and laboriously sloshed over salads across the nation. Sometimes we might even go fancy and buy a ‘balsamic glaze’, to spruce up a cheese board or a few strawberries because Jamie Oliver says its a good idea.
Actually, we’re doing it all wrong.
The stuff we’re buying by the bottle from the supermarket isn't the proper stuff at all. A good balsamic vinegar is more expensive than a decent bottle of wine. It’s thick, syrupy, sweet and acidic in equal measures, and you can only get the real Aceto di Balsamico from Modena
I paid a visit to Acetaia del Cristo, which has been produced this beautifully brown syrupy stuff for over four generations, to learn all about it.
The best way to learn all about the secrets of balsamic vinegar is to visit a traditional Acetaia, usually based around Modena, to organise a visit. The culture of creating Traditional Balsamic Vinegar was previously restricted to family use and producers are keen to drive awareness about this aged process to international tourists and local Italians alike.
Acetaia del Cristo is one of the most important world producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, with at least 2000 casks exclusively used to produce the vinegar. So, if you want to learn from the best.. get in touch. The Acetaia is easiest reached by car, located around 30 mins outside of Modena, but a regular bus service does run during the week (400 or 420 from Modena Autostatzione)
WHAT IS IT?
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO (TBVM) is made only from cooking grapes which have grown in Modena. It is literally all grapes. The acidity you taste comes from the grape juice, rather than from wine vinegar like most balsamic vinegars you’ll find at the supermarket.
This is why people can happily swill the stuff away from a spoon at a tasting.
WHY IS IT SO EXPENSIVE?
Prices for 100ml start at €70 but you can expect to pay up to €150 outside of Italy.
‘Why’, you might ask, ‘would I pay ten times as much, for a bottle half the size’.
1. In order to create ‘Traditional Balsamic Vinegar’, the vinegar needs to age for at least 12 years in high-quality wooden casks or barrels. Extra-vecchio (extra-old) vinegar can be termed as such only after an ageing process of at least twenty five years. Its a big investment.
2. Over the entire process, the final product will have reduced to just 30% of its original volume, due to a four month cooking period and natural evaporation which occurs during the lengthly ageing process.
3. The product also demands very particular cultivation conditions. After cooking, vinegar is distributed into ‘batteries’ - a series of five to seven wooden barrels of varying size and wood - which sit in various attics across the site. Over time, vinegar is extracted from the larger barrels to the smaller barrels, to replace what has disappeared through the filters. It's an art.
HOW DO I KNOW I’M GETTING THE PROPER STUFF?
The vinegar can only be called ‘Traditional Balsamic Vinegar’ after passing a series of careful checks all the way along the supply chain, in compliance with P.O.D regulations. It is then bottled in authorised centres (it can't be bottled at the farm) in the specific 100ml cruet bottle wrapped in a P.D.O approved seal. So you won't find it in anything larger than the bottles pictured below.
IS IT WORTH IT?
For fear of harping on like a Sainsbury's advert, I'll just say this. You can taste the difference. My tour of the acetaia ended with a tasting of four or five different vinegars. Even I, a woman who can really only ever contribute comments like 'hints of cherries' at a wine tasting, could distinguish between the different vinegars.
For example, a vinegar which has aged in a cherry wood battery, is quite clearly much sweeter and more well suited to a desert, than say one which has aged in a juniper wood, which is much earthier and perfect for meat and cheese.
I’m not the only one blown over by the vinegar produced here. There’s a special VIP room with vinegars reserved for the Queen, who tasted the vinegar at a party decades ago and took a liking to it, and Hollywood royalty Michael Douglas.
ALL THAT FOR A SALAD?
WRONG. In Emilia-Romagna, small drops of balsamic vinegar are commonly drizzled onto anything from a good meat or fish dish, to strawberries and icecream. It’s not uncommon to swallow a teaspoon after a meal to aid digestion either.