If your idea of balsamic vinegar is what’s available at your supermarket, well… let’s just say that the product you pick up for $5 or $10 a bottle at your local grocery store is as different from the real stuff as extra virgin olive oil is from motor oil.
Real, aged balsamic vinegar is as thick and dark as molasses, and is made only from the juice, or mosto (must) of the grapes. No sugar, no coloring, no flavoring – just cooked grape juice with a little natural yeast. It has an acidic hint, but the sweet notes come through loud and clear.
The process has roots back to ancient times. The Roman poet Virgil wrote about cooking must 30 years B.C. and the epicure Apicius wrote about it 60 years A.D.
On my recent trip to Italy, I visited a place that makes traditional aged balsamic vinegar – the Acetaia San Giacomo. Acetaia means literally “a place that makes vinegar” and its owner, Andrea Bezzecchi, generously game us a tour of his operation. The acetaia is located in the countryside of the Emilia Romagna region near Novellara, the heartland of two other well-known culinary delights that pair beautifully with aged balsamic vinegar – prosciutto di parma and parmigiano reggiano.
Andrea, 36, who also holds a law degree, took over the acetaia in 1996 along with his brother, but his family has been making balsamic vinegar since 1960. (Andrea doesn’t call it a business, because as he says “A business is not a passion.”)
His product is cherished by connoisseurs not only in Italy, but around the world. In the United States, it is used at restaurants ranging from New York City’s “Le Bernardin” to “Spiaggia” in Chicago, a favorite of President Obama’s.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made in only two places, both of which are in the Emilia Romagna region – the provinces of Reggio Emilia and Modena. This artisanal, viscous nectar accounts for only 1 percent of all the balsamic vinegar on the market. The rest, or 900 million liters, is made in factories and not necessarily in Italy or in Modena, although the name Modena is used on a lot of industrially produced bottles.
For the traditional aged balsamic, producers are held to strict standards by a local consortium, who must give its seal of approval before it can be labeled. To start with, only two kinds of grapes are allowed to be used, lambrusco or trebbiano, both of which must be grown only in the local area.
The grape must is then cooked over direct heat for 12 to 16 hours, which concentrates the sugars by 50 percent. This 12 hours, Andrea says, is the same time taken between milking the cows used in making parmigiano cheese, just another measure of how local foods that should be eaten together are linked. After 12 hours of cooking, the must is called “saba” and is delicious as a sweetener over ice cream or fruits. But you can’t call it traditional balsamic vinegar. For that, the precious liquid needs to travel through many barrels and at least 12 years.
The cooked must starts its journey in a large oak barrel – from 220 liters to 350 liters. A large circular area is covered only by layers of cloth to keep out the dust and other impurities. The first fermentation and oxidation take place here. After one year the resulting product can be sold as vinegar, but not as traditional balsamic vinegar.
The vinegar moves through a series of smaller barrels. Andrea takes his vinegar through successively smaller barrels made of different woods, beginning with barrels of oak, then chestnut, juniper, back to chestnut, on to cherry, mulberry and acacia. Most producers use five different barrels, but Acetaia San Giacomo uses seven. “Every wood gives a different flavor,” Andrea said.
Concentration of the vinegar happens faster in the smaller barrels, Andrea said, “Because more wood touches the must. But the big barrel gives more oxidation,” he said. Once a year, some of the vinegar is taken out of the smallest (and oldest) barrel for judging.
A local consortium of experts rates the vinegar, using different criteria for sight, smell and taste. Here is the score card:
Different scores are given depending on the qualities of the vinegar. Acetaia San Giacomo produces three types of traditional aged balsamic: the red label – which is aged at least 12 years and must attain a minimum score of 240 points; the silver label - aged from 12 to 25 years with a minimum score of 270 points, and the gold label - aged more than 25 years with a score of at least 300. Each bottle also bears the European DOP (Denominazione Origine Protetta) label that guarantees the quality and origin of the product.
The balsamic vinegar that is extracted from the smallest barrel is replaced by vinegar from the next largest barrel and so on down the line, until the the process reaches the first barrel, or badesse.
All this waiting for years and years produces a complex, ambrosial nectar that does not come cheaply (as you’d imagine), but for a special meal with special people, it’s worth the splurge. In addition to the traditional aged balsamic, Andrea produces a host of other vinegar products that don’t take such a bite out of the wallet. Among them, is “essenza,” a vinegar that is bottled before the final maturation of traditional balsamic and a balsamic jelly, that pairs well with aged cheeses or desserts. The acetaia’s balsamic jelly is also used as a filling in chocolates sold under the San Giacomo name.
For a tasting of Acetaia San Giacomo’s traditional balsamic and a fantastic lunch, Andrea took us to a restaurant in the countryside that we’d never have found on our own, Trattoria Cognento. As we sat down, out came a huge chunk of parmigiano reggiano and Andrea’s most highly prized traditional balsamic vinegar – the gold label. Andrea sectioned off pieces, letting the cheese fall along its natural grain and poured droplets of the vinegar over the cheese. What a sensation to taste the pungent crunchiness of the parmigiano topped with the unctious and sweetly acidic balsamic. It was a perfect pairing.
Andrea had to leave to meet his brother who was coming from Verona with the key to the acetaia (Andrea accidentally locked himself out after greeting us at the front door), but not before ordering our meal for us. All the foods were typical dishes of my mother’s region - Emilia Romagna – from the chisolini, or gnoccho fritto (fried bread)
to the local salumi (salami, coppa, prosciutto)
It was a perfect way to experience the flavors of some of Italy’s best foods and products, including Acetaia San Giacomo’s traditional balsamic vinegar. Grazie mille per un giorno indimenticabile, Andrea.
For those of you who’d like to try making that fried bread, here’s a recipe courtesy of the Italian Trade Commission:
Chisolini - Fried Bread
- 1 pound all-purpose flour
- 9 ounces milk
- 2 ounces butter
- 1 teaspoon active powdered yeast
- Vegetable or frying oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- On the pastry board make a cone of flour with a cavity on top (a fontana in Italian, i.e. "like a fountain"). Add the yeast previously diluted in lukewarm water, 1 teaspoon of salt, the butter (softened and cut in pieces) in the center of the fontana and start to knead with enough lukewarm milk to obtain a rather soft dough. Knead for 15 minutes and then roll it out with a rolling pin, making a disk (or a square). Fold it in quarters, then roll out the dough again, and fold it again, repeating the process a total of five times. Roll the dough in jelly roll fashion and slice the resulting dough in 1 1/2-inch pieces (you can also cut each slice in half) and stretch it with the rolling pin so as to obtain a piece of dough 1/4-inch thick. Then cut into shapes each side 4-inch long (size can be altered if desired).
- When you have finished cutting all the dough, heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan and then start frying the pieces of dough. Brown well on both sides. They will puff up and be an even, golden color. Drain, remove the excess fat by placing on paper towels and serve hot.
Makes about 12 servings.
They can be served with various ingredients such as Parmigiano, prosciutto, salami, etc.; they can also be eaten for breakfast with coffee and milk.