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Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena... Not Just a Condiment

When you buy a bottle of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, you are not buying just a condiment. Inside each bottle is the history and tradition passed down from generation to generation of every Modena family who makes it. Its production is not the result of a mechanical, industrial process; but rather a slow and delicate evolution which can be compromised by unforeseen variables. Sudden changes in temperature or the formation of mold can ruin decades of work. Only the experience, care and passion of the vinegar's maker will ensure its success. Fine Tastes of Modena offers a choice of several top quality brands of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena; because even though they are made using the same basic procedure, each is very different through the family tradition used in making their balsamic vinegar. A difficult choice, but each one deserves to be tested!

Historical Notes About Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

The origins of balsamic vinegar are unknown, but there are many references to it in early history. The ancient Romans used a variety of sauces in their cuisine including defrutum, a reduction of grape must. In "Georgics" by Publio Virgilio Marone, we find references to a process of cooking grape must widely used in the Modena area. The result of this process was a condiment named defrutum, sapa or caraenum depending on the concentration. Defrutum was used to sweeten wine, but it was also widely used for the preparation of meat dishes as a single ingredient (giving a slight bittersweet taste to the food) or in combination with other seasonings.

There are also accounts of balsamic vinegar use in the Middle Ages. In the year 1046, the Benedictine Monk Donizone wrote "Vita Mathildis": a chronicle about Enrico III of Franconia traveling to Rome to be crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Clement II. Enrico III stopped in Piacenza and on that occasion, he sent a messenger to the powerful lord of Reggio Emilia, Boniface of Canossa (father of Matilda), to ask for a bit of that special vinegar produced by the Canossa family he heard so much about. Boniface was so honored by Enrico III's request, he presented him with a silver barrel containing the precious vinegar.
To find more substantial references about balsamic vinegar in history, we must go to the sixteenth century when one begins to appreciate more the bittersweet taste typical of the balsamic vinegar of Modena. Balsamic vinegar became a sophisticated and expensive product known in the courts of Europe.

At the end of the sixteenth century, the fate of Modena's balsamic vinegar is closely tied to the Estense family who at that time took possession of the Duchy of Modena. The Estense court valued so much their subjects' customs and traditions in producing balsamic vinegar that they built the 36 barrel Ducal "acetaia" in one of the towers of the palace.

It is said that Duke Francis IV of Modena always traveled with a small box of the precious liquid used to comfort his poor health. In fact the word "balsamic" was referred to its medicinal properties initially attributed to vinegar. In 1508, Lucrezia Borgia relied on its therapeutic properties during childbirth when she gave birth to her son Ercole II of Ferrara.
Balsamic vinegar was also used to combat the plague of 1630. This natural disinfectant was used for gargling or as a sterilizing agent and even a way to purify the air by placing a few drops on the coals in the fireplace.
At that time it was believed that balsamic vinegar possessed other virtues, such as being an aphrodisiac; legendarily used by Isabella Gonzaga. It seems that Casanova also appreciated its magical effect.

Tips for Using Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena occupies a place of great prestige in the kitchen. Its versatility means that this condiment goes well with seasoned and hard cheese, raw vegetables, rice, boiled or grilled meat, fish, omelettes, fruit and ice cream. Because of its flexibility, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is used to embellish appetizers, first courses, main courses and desserts. Even extra-old Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is often used as a digestive after a meal: sipping it from a tea spoon.

With rare exceptions, you should never cook with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, but instead, use it as a condiment. Add it to hot foods right before serving in order to preserve and enjoy the most of its rich flavor.

Whatever its use, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena should compliment and not cover the flavor of food. Even when adding to personal taste, it is best not to use more than a couple of teaspoons per person.

Every brand of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is a world unto itself with its own characteristics. There are balsamic vinegars which have a prevailing full and round taste, while others have a more robust acidic or aromatic feel. This all depends on the types of wooden barrels used and how long they have matured. The various balsamic flavors will also make an unlimited combination of flavors with different foods. For example, it is best to use a relatively young balsamic vinegar that has a higher acidity content with raw vegetables; while cooked foods that are served hot are better with a more mature balsamic vinegar to reveal its full flavor.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena: The Procedure

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is made from cooked grape must using Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes grown in the Province of Modena. In February or early March, the must is slow cooked at a constant temperature never reaching boiling. When reduced to about half its original volume, the cooked must is sealed off in a glass, sterilized demijohn for cooling down. The liquid starts to slowly acidify. The heavier particles start to settle and the natural fermentation begins. After a month, the liquid is transferred to another sterilized demijohn and sealed. This process is repeated for five to seven months. When a nice, brown film forms on the bottom of the demijohn, it is time to put the young vinegar into a series of wooden barrels for maturing.

This series "batteria" consists of 5 to 7 barrels starting with the largest holding about 60-70 liters (15-18 gallons), scaling down to the smallest with the capacity of 10 liters (2.5 gallons). Sometimes the volume of the smallest barrel can be as little as 5 liters (1.5 gallons). A portion of the balsamic vinegar is drawn from the smallest barrel for bottling; then each barrel is topped off with the contents from the next largest barrel. The fresh must from the demijohn is then added to the largest barrel. These barrels "botte" are made from different types of wood such as oak, cherry, ash, chestnut, mulberry and juniper. The type of wood used is what gives the vinegar its distinct aroma, color, texture and bouquet.

The process for becoming a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is very strict. Balsamic vinegar aged for at least 12 years are brought by their makers to one of the two consortiums which oversees and guarantees the quality of the product. These two entities are the "Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" and the "Consorzio Produttori Antiche Acetaie". These are the only authorities which can determine that a balsamic vinegar meets the qualities to be called a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. The consortium samples 100 grams (3.5 ounces) from each balsamic vinegar presented. This sample is put into an anonymous bottle, indicated only by a number without the manufacturer's label, to avoid any form of conditioning during judging. Each consortium has a special committee of five master tasters which assesses each sample and rates all of its characteristics. Only balsamic vinegar approved by these two committees may be called a "Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena". They are then bottled by the consortium in the special 100 ml (3.4 oz) bottles designed by the renowned Giugiaro Design Studio. Each bottle is labeled with the ABTM seal of quality and bottling number.

There are only two classifications of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. The "Vecchio" which has aged for a minimum of 12 years. The other is the "Extravecchio" which has aged for a minimum of 25 years. The Extravecchio is identified with a gold capsule on the bottles.