01 August 2016

2015 ITALY Modena 24 - Aceto Test

A 10-minute drive away was our next stop at Villa San Donnino (www.villasandonnino.it), an aceto balsamico producer (translates to balsamic vinegar in English). The driveway alone was impressive--long and lined with lovely trees and grape vines. Sunlight streaming through their leaves.

At the end was a charming old villa built in 1905. Although we could not go inside, the impressive residence was decorated by avant-garde artist Aroldo Bonzagni (1887-1918). The setting was picture perfect. We had to wait a few minutes for the tour, but that gave us time to wander around and enjoy this idyllic scene.

Our hostess was Marina. She pointed out that balsamic vinegar is traditionally a product only produced near the city of Modena and has a "protected government designation of origin status" (DOC). Originally this precious product was used for a dressing, payment of goods, medicine, and other things. Marina says opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti used it to soothe his throat.

Marina explained the process of making balsamic vinegar. While other vinegars have their origin in an alcoholic liquid, balsamic is produced directly from grape juice. Local grapes (mainly Trebbiano) are harvested, crushed, and the must (liquid) is then boiled in an open vat over fire. This rich liquid is then moved into high quality wooden casks. Each year about 10% of the liquid evaporates. Over a period of years it is transferred to smaller and smaller casks to age and accommodate that loss.

Through an oxidation process the grape juice is transformed into vinegar. During aging the liquid is cared for in a technique involving transfers to smaller casks and topping offs. As the liquid evaporates the balsamic thickens and becomes more rich in taste and thick in texture. Over time microbiotic and enzymatic changes combine to achieve a balance in flavor and fragrance. Absolutely no other substances or aromatics are added to alter the taste. It is pure naturally aged vinegar. 

Barrels or casks are the only influence. A series (or battery) may be 5-12 barrels, although usually 6 or 7 are used in the process. Each cask could be a different wood--chestnut, cherry, oak, juniper, mulberry, oak, etc. Barrels are seldom destroyed and are never left empty. They are "living" in that they are constantly changing based on weather, humidity, and contents. If part of a barrel needs to be replaced, it takes 2-3 years to "rebalance." Here is an example of a series of 5 casks.

There are over 500 precious barrels in all at this facility. Marina pointed out a date of 1512 on one barrel. We also learned that when a new baby is born to the family a new set of casks is initiated to honor the child. Here are two store rooms where casks are left to age their contents. Notice the decorated cloths over the openings to the casks. They add to the charm of the process.

There are two designations of DOC balsamic: Tradizionale di Modena is aged for a minimum of 12 years and Extra Vecchio (very old) is aged for a minimum of 25 years. We tasted each of these and you could definitely tell the difference.  We also tasted a marmalade jelly product that was so delicious--intense and flavorful. It is made from 6-year balsamic and pectin only. Try it on bread with a bit of ricotta cheese. Oh man, my mouth is watering as I write.
Our favorite though was balsamic over vanilla ice cream. We were all swooning and oohing and aahing. You did not need much to enhance the flavor of this treat.

We had to have a bottle for home. We purchased the Tradizionale (as the Extra Vecchio was a bit out of our price range). This one from table top to cork top was 6-½ inches tall and 2-½ inches wide and holds 100 ml of liquid. I think the price was 65 euros. Mike figured if you bought a gallon of this, it would cost $2,461, but so good and worth the price! 

The booklet that came with the balsamic has some recipes included. One was a lobster salad from Le Cirque restaurant in NYC. At home, we use a few drops over ice cream or fresh strawberries.
An aside: Literature we read says you can age this vinegar longer. At 50 years, it says to drink it like a liquor. No way this little bottle at our house will last that long!

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