CULINARY TRAVEL: The traditional balsamico of Modena

I went to Italy 20 years ago to learn about the traditional method of making the finest balsamic vinegar in small family acetaia in Modena. La Cà dal Nôn (the 'house of the grandfather') is still making this rare product, and Mariangela (my guide then) still welcomes guests to visit her family's artisan balsamic operation and see the barrels of vinegar aging in the attic.



By CINDA CHAVICH

(Modena, Italy)


Mariangela Montanari is a pretty, young Italian woman – rakishly thin and sporting the latest in navel-baring fashion.

Her passion for the old family tradition of making fine balsamic vinegar might seem at odds with her stylish demeanor. But here in Modena, the Italian province where the world’s most expensive condiment is made, tradition and family comes first. And the viscous vinegar that she proffers in a tiny cup for tasting, truly holds 100 years of family history in its sweet suspension.

“You can never empty a barrel, because you will lose a member of your family,” she says in all seriousness, tenderly stroking a small dark cask like a favourite pet. “These barrels were started by my father in the 1960s, and we have barrels started by the great-grandfather that are still going on.”

“The important thing is to keep care of them.”

Her father, Vittorio , agrees. Like the best vinegar which bears his name, at their acetaia (the equivalent of a winery in vinegar-making parlance), age is everything. Some of the stout-trunked vines next to their 200-year-old stone house are more than 100 years old. The fruit from these old vines, like some of the small barrels that still lie in tidy rows aging in the attic, has been used in their La Ca dal Non vinegars since 1883.

It’s a long, slow process. The vinegar he is making today is for Mariangela and her brother to enjoy, as he is now enjoying the labours of his parents and grandparents.

After taking the time to explore the family-run acetaias where barely 7,000 litres of this true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena or ABTM) is nursed to maturity every year, it’s not hard to understand why these families guard their local products like family heirlooms . For that is what they are – barrels tended for years, and sometimes generations, before they yield a single bottle of this precious liquid.

This is not the stuff you find in every pseudo-Italian restaurant, doused over house salads or dumped into pools of cheap olive oil for dipping bread.


THE ESSENCE OF THE GRAPE

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is the ice wine of balsamic vinegars - the very essence of the sweet Trebbiano grape juice. It is a product that, by Italian law, can only be produced in this small region in northern Italy, near the small city of Modena.Unlike industrial balsamic, it’s 100 per cent juice, cooked and acidified by ancient vinegar “mothers”, then concentrated over years of evaporation in batterias of graduated, aromatic wooden barrels.

Until you’ve popped a cork on a bottle of the real thing, it’s almost impossible to understand what they’re on about. But once you’ve touched a tiny spoonful to your lips – as you will at every generous acetaia you visit – you will crave the balance of sweet and sour on your tongue, as much as you might enjoy the sweet tang of Canadian ice wine.

This is, in fact, how the Modenese have traditionally enjoyed their balsamic vinegar, as a“balsam” or tonic, sipped after a special meal as a digestive, like a fine cognac.

When you truly comprehend how much time and energy it takes to create this slowest of all slow food, you’ll know why a mere 100 ml bottle of the real thing will set you back $150-$300 at a gourmet shop back home in Canada.


VISITING MODENA'S ACETAIAS

But when you visit Modena – especially during the annual Balsamica Festival – you can have your fill of this luxury treat, tasting and comparing vinegars from different small producers on tasting tours, attending formal tasting seminars and trying it in dozens of local restaurants. Whether it’s dribbled over grainy chunks of the local Parmigiano Reggiano cheese with cocktails, used to finish a piece of grilled fish, or served like syrup over strawberries and vanilla ice cream, traditional balsamic vinegar turns up in every course.

Tripping through these small, family-run acetaias,in and around Modena, is akin to a winery tour but one taken a century ago before winemaking became the industry that it is today. Traditional balsamic vinegar is an artisinal product, made on a very small scale by families, often in the attics of their own homes. The smallest producers sell less than 100 litres of vinegar a year – the largest only 1,500 litres.

Like walnut liqueur or salami sausage, balsamic is a traditional food that has been eaten here for centuries and is still produced in the attics of most Modenese houses and barns. Only in the last 15 years has traditional balsamic vinegar found its way into retail markets outside Italy – until 1983 it was illegal to sell and the true balsamico was reserved for family consumption, gift giving and wedding dowries.

Visiting an acetaia inevitably means ascending a steep set of back stairs in a traditional two-story house, stone steps that lead to a low attic space tucked beneath ancient roof timbers and classic clay tiles. The space is lined with rows of barrels of various vintages, shapes and sizes, and the heady aroma of fermenting grape juice fills the air like tangy perfume.

Every fall the families refill the barrels with grape juice that has been boiled until it is a sweet, heavy must, one-third of its original volume. Over hot summers in the attic, the sweet must ferments and acidifies. In the cool winters, the vinegar rests, clarifies and much of it evaporates into thin air. Every year the vinegar maker transfers the remaining concentrated liquid to smaller and smaller barrels to age and mature, and refills the largest casks with fresh must until, after more than a dozen years, the first few litres of thick, russet balsamic is ready to be used.

This is the kind of vinegar you will try in the attics of these family homes. The owners conduct the tours and tastings, a welcome personal connection in today’s impersonal world, and the family’s history always looms large in the narrative , for it is on history that their business is based.

At Agricola Galli, a small family farm where only 900 bottles (or 90 litres) of balsamic are produced each year, the traditional shuttered Italian house and ancient stone barn are surrounded by lushgardens and long rows of vines, Trebbiano for vinegar and Lambrusco di Sorbara for their own sparkling red wine.

Clementina (Tina), 90, is the matriarch of the family. She has lived here since she married in 1933. Her dowery included some of her father’s balsamic vinegar barrels and, together with her husband, Antonio, she began building this acetaia nearly 70 years ago.

Today, her son Giovanni and his wife Carla are in charge of the family barrels, 135 casks line the walls in their attic. Every barrel has it’s history noted on an official form - even those that date to 1820 are still part of a battery, still used for aging and maturing vinegar. Carla tells the tales and fills a ceramic spoon with her best vinegar for us to taste, a sweet sharp play of smoky caramel and sharp acidity on the palate that lingers long after it’s gone.

It’s the same at every other acetaia, a long family history of feeding and nurturing the barrels of balsamico, and the players who keep the traditions alive.

Acetaia Malpighi is the largest producer of traditional balsamic, selling 15,000 bottles or 1,500 litres every year. Ermes Malpighi has amassed his large collection of nearly 2,000 barrels by acquiring them from those who can no longer carry on the tradition. In some families, he says, there are no descendants to keep the vinegar alive and the batteries are sold, an emotional loss akin to selling the family farm.

“When people sell their barrels, they kneel to kiss them and cry,” he says, noting a single batteria of five or six high quality barrels may fetch $15,000 (CDN).


OFFICIAL D.O.C. BALSAMICO

Like other traditional food products in this part of Italy (from Parmesan cheese and prosciutto to olive oil and even cherries), production of the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena (ABTM) is strictly controlled by a consortium. Only true balsamic, made in the region by traditional methods, obtains the official D.O.C designation (controlled denomination of origin) and the right to use the official bulbous bottles.

When you visit these acetaias, you will see the ABTM mark of the consortium stamped on each barrel. The consortium polices the process and, at their headquarters in Spilamberto, master tasters judge each batch of vinegar to make sure it meets their quality standards. To protect the name from fraud or imitation, true balsamic carries the consortium serial number and seal, the mark that guarantees its authenticity.

Spilamberto is a great place to start your balsamic education and touring. A small town halfway between Modena and Bologna, Spilamberto is also home to the Consorteria dell’Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. This non-profit group offers courses to train tasters and tends its own demonstration acetaia in the historic Villa Fabriani at the centre of town.This is where you will find the Taste Masters and their apprentices, hovering over burning candles with unmarked beakers of brick-coloured balsamic vinegar, conducting their formal tasting and organoleptic evaluations.

While all of the acetaias are family-run operations, most accept visitors if you call ahead to make arrangements. If you are simply passing through the province, a visit to the town hall in Vignola offers the chance to climb a few flights of steep stone stairs to the ancient attic, where the tiny Acetaia Comunale offers a synopsis of the process. Or visit the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Museum in Spilamberto to learn all about the process.


BEAUTIFUL BOLOGNA AND EMILIA-ROMAGNA

While Tuscany is still the trendy Italian region to visit, it’s neighbor to the north, Emilia-Romagna, has many famous foods and culinary traditions. Bologna, the capital city, is dubbed “La Grassa” (The Fat), and known for it’s rich menus based prosciutto ham, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, homemade filled pastas like tortellini and tortelloni, and huge Mortadella and salami sausages. The nearby city of Modena has all of these specialty foods in its boroughs, too, but has the distinction of being home to traditional balsamic vinegar .

It’s a tradition that’s still strong in Claudio Biancardi’s family, where his wife Irene, two teenaged children and 95-year-old- father, Edgar, represent three generations dedicate d to the slow and meticulous process of producing this unique, luxury product.

“It’s very simple to produce,” admits Biancardi, “made from one prime product, cooked must. The only other thing we need is time.”


IF YOU GO:

Air Canada and it’s partner Alitalia offer regular direct flights from Toronto to Bologna. From there it’s a 40-minute drive to downtown Modena.

Modenatur, the city tourist office, can help you arrange tours of acetaias or other regional food facilities (like Parmigianno Reggiano cheese dairies, local wineries or places where you can see how traditional prosciuotto ham is made). They also have English-speaking guides for hire who will accompany groups of up to 10 people for about $150 (CDN) per day, and will also book accommodation, transportation and restaurants for visitors. Contact them at +39-059220022 or www.modenatur.net)


BALSAMIC MAKERS

Balsamica, the annual balsamic vinegar festival in Modena, is a great time to tour this region because there are short courses arranged by the cosorteria , tours, formal tastings and cooking classes, all based on traditional balsamic vinegar. The featival runs for several weeks, beginning in mid-May. A September visit will allow you to observe the harvest and outdoor cooking of the grape must.

If you want to make your own arrangements, tours of family-run acetaias are free, but you must call ahead to make an appointment.

Acetaia Malpighi (Ermes Malpighi) – 059.367763 or www.acetaiamalpighi.it

Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca (Claudio Biancardi) – 059.468571 or claubi@tin.it

Azienda Agricola (Giovanni Galli) – 059.251094 https://www.balsamicotradizionale.it/en/acetaie/az-agricola-galli-giovanni/

La Ca dal Non Acetaia 1883(Mariangela Montanari) – 059.300278 or cadalnon@vignola.it


ACCOMMODATION/DINING

NOTE: I visited this region several years ago, so some of this information may be outdated.

Modena is a small city, easy to see on foot or by bicycle (the prefered transportation of locals). The Hotel Canal Grande is a four-star hotel set in a 16th century house with elaborate paintings and frescoes in the lobby and small but comfortable rooms (059.217160 or www.canalgrandehotel.it). Recommended three-star hotels in the historic central area include the charming Liberta (059.222365, hliberta@tin.it) and Etense (059.219057).

For a creative Modenese menu in a casual wine bar atmosphere try Osteria Stallo del Pomodoro, Largo Hannover, 63, Modena 059.214664 . Or for an inexpensive traditional lunch or head upstairs to Aldina (across from the downtown market at 40 Via Albinelli). Gourmet foods (including a selection of balsamic vinegars) and takeaway can be found at Guiseppe Guisti, a lovely delicatessan at 75 Via Farini .

While you’re touring acetaias in the country, don’t miss the fine homestyle cooking at Cantina Masone di Campogalliano (info@catinamasonecampogalliano.com) and the creative fare at Agrituristica Ripa near Spilamberto, where all of the cooking is done with products from the farm (059.785504)