You have to be pretty old to remember the TV game shows like “What’s My Line,” “To Tell The Truth,” and “I’ve Got a Secret.” The general format for these shows was that a panel of celebrities would try to guess which one of the guest panelists was telling the truth about their occupation, some gadget they created, or something unique about them. The judges would ask questions to figure out who was telling the truth. At the end of the segment the host would ask the real people to “stand up” and reveal themselves. Sometimes the judges guessed correctly and sometimes they were stumped.
I believe the mystery around Balsamic Vinegar is similar. There are so many varieties in the US markets, you don’t really know what is “real” balsamic vinegar.
A trip to Modena, Italy opened my eyes to the world of Balsamic Vinegar. We were surprised to learn that in Italy people go on Balsamic Vinegar tasting trips like we do for wine. It was interesting to observe people arriving in groups or couples, tasting the different vintages of vinegars and then moving on to the next farm.
The host of one of the farms (Villa San Donnino) gave us quite a tour, starting with the vineyard of trabiani grape. Yes, vinegar is made from grapes. The vinegar is treated and processed the traditional way which allows them to earn a certification – much like wine. Next we were given quite a lecture on this farm’s history: The villa on this farm was originally owned by a Jewish family that had to leave it when World War II broke out. It was then inhabited by the Nazi’s. After the war, the Jewish family sold the Villa to the current owner’s family.
Click here to see great pictures of this farm. We actually had a picnic lunch on the grounds the day we were there. Magical!
In an attic-like room (3 flights of stairs up) we saw barrel groups starting small and moving up to medium-large size. The group of barrels is called a “battery.” A family buys a group of barrels when a child is born and fills them with their crushed grapes called “master or musk.” And when getting married, some women choose a battery of barrels over diamonds. Shocking I know, but these barrels are worth more in balsamic vinegar production than diamonds in the long run. Some of the barrels in this attic were up to a hundred of year old and very coveted because they hold the flavor and color that adds to the vinegar quality. If you have barrels over 100 years old I don’t think you can be certified by the consortium and sell the vinegar to the public.
The barrels are actually open at the top so the air can flow. They cover the hole with a family cloth. They are kept in the attic because it is hot in summer and it helps with fermentation and in the winter when it is cooler, it can rest. If you want to sell your vinegar publicly you have to wait 12 years. Once a year they have to top off the barrels because they lose 10% of the volume per year. That process was fascinating…. they take from each successive barrel to the next and then put the recent year’s harvest in the biggest barrel. They do that to balance the flavors of old and new.
We were told that balsamic vinegar was used as medicine back in the day (an aspirin of sorts), as well as used as currency for paying the doctor, etc.
Here is a short video from Villa San Donnino that explains Balsamic Vinegar growing, processing, certifying, and bottling. Click here for video.
I have a variety of Balsamic Vinegar in my kitchen, most purchased in the US and a few coveted bottles brought back from Modena. I use them all, well maybe except for the WallMart vinegar, I bought that for the picture to show the diversity of types and brands. The other bottles you can tell are well used. The Saba on the end of the featured image is like molasses and is great over ice cream. In summer the Fig infused balsamic is great drizzled over watermelon.
Experiment and have fun with Balsamic. I guarantee that new flavors and uses will result!