My Balsamic Vinegar Experience in Modena, IT
Acetaia Cavalli, Scandiano RE
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
In our recent travels through Italy, one of the destinations for any food lover is Emilia-Romagna, considered by many to be the culinary capital of Italy. Prized for its unique and outstanding food, I was particularly interested in balsamic vinegar that is produced in the original artisan traditions.
There is no Italian product more imitated, often unjustly so, than balsamic vinegar. When one thinks of balsamic vinegar, it brings images of the myriad of products lining grocery store shelves that one typically buys to make salad dressing or to drizzle in some sauce, some with fancy labels and in fancy bottles with the words “Modena” on the label, and some inexpensive, others more expensive. But real balsamic vinegar made in the traditional artisan way in Italy (aceto balsamico tradizionale) is in a category all of its own – nothing could be further from those $3 grocery store products.
We had the opportunity to visit Acetaia Cavalli – a beautiful, family run acetaia situated in the heart of Reggio Emilia. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Giovanni Cavalli for a tour of his acetaia. When I walked into the acetaia, I was immediately greeted with the unique aromas of sweet and sour with the subtle underlying pungent smell of the vinegar.
The process of making aceto balsamico is similar to that of wine – grapes are pressed and the resulting juice is fermented and then aged in wood barrels. But that’s where the similarities to wine end. Aceto balsamico begins its life from the juice of white grapes, typically Trebbiano – the white grapes are preferred because of their higher acidity. The grapes are pressed along with the seeds and stems and cooked very slowly in copper cauldrons producing a syrup-like must. This must is then allowed to settle over an entire winter season. The following summer, the must is added to a barrel, called the botte madre or mother barrel, where bacteria has been added to transform the must to acetic acid. Then the fermentation and long aging process begins.
The fermented must is placed in a series of wooden barrels, called a “battery” with each barrel made of different woods and each progressive smaller in size. The battery could be 4 or 5 barrels or as many as 12 barrels, and each barrel in the battery is made of a different type of wood (chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, oak). wood contributes a particular characteristic to the finished product and it is these barrels that give the aceto balsamico its unique and extraordinary characteristics.
Unlike many quality wines, which are normally from single vintages and placed in barrels filled so that minimal air space is present and placed in the cool stable temperatures of a cellar, the process of aging aceto balsamico is almost entirely opposite. The barrels that are used can be decades old (the older, the more characteristic the product) and they are filled to no more than three-quarters full and placed in a location, usually in an attic, where they will be exposed to the most widely varying temperatures (cold winters and warm, hot summers). These wide temperature variations help the evaporation process which concentrates the vinegar and is the key to its aging. Periodically, usually once every year, the volume of each barrel is adjusted as product evaporates. The way this is done is the smallest barrel in the battery is filled back up to its original level using the vinegar from the next largest barrel up in the battery, and so on until the largest barrel in the battery is filled with the newest vintage.
The production of aceto balsamico is governed by strict regulations that guarantee their origins and the strictly controlled production process. This designation is called Denominazione di Origine Protetta ("Protected Designation of Origin"), or DOP. Every bottle that is produced under these guidelines will bear the DOP designation on the bottle. According to DOP, that the aceto balsamico can be placed on the market after aging for a minimum of 12 years and could bear the designation Extra Vecchio (Extra Old) only when aged for more than 25 years. Some of Cavalli’s aceto balsamico was over 300 yrs old. All of the bottles of aceto balsamico from Reggio Emilia mandated to be the same shape, have a wax seal, use either silver or gold labels (depending on age) and bear the designation DOP.
Now for the best part – the tasting after our tour. This was truly a unique culinary experience. We started with their “condiment” balsamic vinegar (used more for daily use and not DOP). Both their classic and reserved vinegars were intended for everyday use (on salad, vegetables, omelets, pastas and rice) and these were like no other commercial balsamic vinegar I have tasted – they were rich and intense with a strong fruity note and powerful vinegar undertones. They could truly enhance any dish.
Then we got to the DOP products – the 12 yr and the 25-yr. old aceto balsamico. Bothe were served with a piece of Reggiano Parmigiano and a strawberry – two classic presentations. The vinegar was elegant, sweet, and thick with incredibly complicated layers – a balance between sweetness and acidity. The 25-yr vinegar was extraordinary and complex and well-balanced, strong but aromatic, sweet, slightly tart, and, most importantly, persistent. You only need a few drops of this on meats, cheese and desserts to enjoy all of its characteristics.
If you are in Reggio Emilia or Modena, I strongly recommend you make an Acetaia tour a bucket list item. You can bring home a bottle of the prized extra Vecchio home – you’ll pay half to a third of the cost of buying it here – around €100 for a 250 ml bottle which will last you for at least a year or more.