MODENA, Italy — Balsamic vinegar is to this north central Italian city what sourdough bread is to San Francisco. It truly is a unique product with special qualities that can't quite be matched elsewhere. That, however, isn't too surprising because the residents of Modena have spent hundreds of years perfecting its rich, mildly tart flavor.
What makes Modena's legendary local vinegar so different from others? No one knows. Some attribute balsamic's mellow tang to spores that float in the air here and nowhere else. Others contend that throughout the centuries, the vinegar "mother" or yeast that gives life to the product has softened and sweetened sublimely, producing a delightful condiment that titillates the palate. Whatever the reason, balsamic vinegar is, indeed, like no other.
Its uses are legion, and sometimes startling. A good, well-aged balsamic is much more than a flavored vinegar to be combined with oil in a salad dressing. A few drops sprinkled on fruit or, yes, even on ice cream, intensifies the natural flavors of these foods. Devotees add it to meats, poultry and fish and, of course, salads for an additional flavor boost. It is used sparingly, as a rule, as a flavor enhancer or condiment.
The older balsamics make wonderful digestives and, in Modena at least, are sometimes served as an unusual aperitif. This is because balsamic, or aceto balsamico as it's known here, lacks the harsh, puckery bite of ordinary vinegars. In place of the sharp, sour taste most of us associate with this acidic liquid, balsamic has an almost syrupy, aromatic tang that is surprisingly pleasant to the palate. Make no mistake, however, this amber-to-dark-brown liquid definitely is a vinegar. It is supposed to have at least 6% acidity (compared to the 5% of most ordinary vinegars). It also is an acquired taste. Once acquired, however, it tends to be addictive.
True balsamic vinegar is produced only in Modena, located in the heart of Italy's Emilia-Romagna district. And, oddly enough, except for some of the country's more sophisticated cities, it is relatively unknown throughout most of Italy's other regions. The story of how it originally developed has been lost through the ages. However, according to the late food historian, Waverley Root, in his book "The Food of Italy," the earliest written mention of aceto balsamico dates back to 1046 when a barrel of the pungent liquid was given to Emperor Henry III as a coronation gift.
Aceto balsamico originally was solely a homemade product. Each family had its own bottles and barrels and formula and when ready for use, the vinegar had its own individual flavor. As might be expected, modern Modenese, who still make the vinegar at home using the same time-honored method and, in many cases, the same flavor-ingrained barrels their ancestors used, tend to consider their own personal aceto balsamico better than anyone else's.
The actual production of this grape-based vinegar is fascinating to observe. Whether made at home or commercially, the process is basically the same.
At a small but very active factory in Modena owned and operated by Guiseppe Cattani, fresh grapes (mostly Trebbiano, although several other varieties are added to round out the flavor) are pressed to provide the basic juice or "must." The must is cooked over low heat in huge vats in the open air for 12 hours, until reduced by half. That concentrate is then placed in large steel tanks where it rests for about six months before being transferred to chestnut and oak barrels to age for three years. After that comes the long aging-fermentation period, which can last for 50 years or more, but today usually lasts for about 10 years.
Warm, dark rooms at Cattani's plant house row after row of mostly well-used barrels in graduated sizes from 10 liters to 90 liters. The barrels are arranged on racks on their sides, 10 to a row, with the largest at one end, the smallest at the other end. Since the vinegar is a living thing, it must have access to air as it ferments so there is a two- to three-inch opening in the top of each barrel, which is covered with a loose-fitting stone or piece of screen.
Each year, according to Cattani, a certain amount of evaporation (usually about 3/4 liter) takes place. Thus when a new batch of young balsamic has finished its initial aging period, the vinegar that has evaporated from the smallest barrel is replaced with vinegar from the barrel next to it and so on, until the largest barrel has plenty of room for the new aceto. The barrels are made of a variety of different woods, each of which adds a modicum of distinctive flavor to the end product. As the new must is added to the old barrels, the ancient spores of the vinegar's "mother" that remain in the wood contribute their special qualities to the fermentation and aging process. Cattani uses barrels of chestnut, oak, cherry, mulberry and juniper among others.