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Modena: The Truth and Tradition of Balsamic Vinegar

For such a small and relatively unknown Italian city, Modena has many things to be proud of. It is a city full of traditions famous world-wide from opera to engines to cuisine, although often not attributed to the city of Modena. The hometown of Enzo Ferrari, Modena, is where balsamic vinegar originated with production documented as early as 1046. It was a family tradition, making balsamic vinegar in the attic of your house – enough to use yourself and give as small gifts at Christmas to those families who didn’t have the tradition.

‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ was pure and  far from commercialized. With modernization and globalization, Modena began to see that other cities and countries began making balsamic vinegar in factories and industrializing the whole process; they even called it Balsamico di Modena. This product was not pure or even made from the same ingredients. Industrialized balsamic vinegar used preservatives, additives and other ingredients, the quality wasn’t the same and the price was a fraction of what it cost to make in Modena. In an attempt to save the family’s traditions the Protected Designation of Origin (D.O.P.) instructed the families to band together and create a unique logo and branding for their product, changing the name to ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena’. The bottle design went through many phases and ended up in a uniquely shaped glass bottle designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro (an Italian automobile designer) to prevent being copied. The bottle is sealed with the D.O.P. seal and sells for more than ten times what commercial balsamic vinegar sells for. And the price tag, which isn’t that expensive when you consider what goes into making a bottle, is worth every penny. The flavour is so strong – both sweet and sour at once – and unique you only need a few drops. You only need one drop on a piece of D.O.P. Parmigiano from Modena or a teaspoon over a salad of heirloom tomatoes and Bocconcini, or even a drop on a ripe strawberry.

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Aceto Tradizionale Balsamico di Modena D.O.P for sale

I knew none of this when we arrived in Modena. I knew I loved balsamic vinegar: it is one condiment you will always find in my kitchen, or while we travel in my Tupperware container of cooking supplies. And I knew that I had to see where it came from and wanted to do a tour of where it was made. Unknowingly, I thought balsamic vinegar would be cheaper in Modena, this was of course before I saw the 75 EUR price tag for 100mL. We asked our airbnb host where the best place to go for a tour was and he mentioned a large farm that does full tours but is outside of the city and difficult to bus to, you also have to make reservations in advance. He also suggested a family friend that gave some personalized tours of their production in her family’s attic. The second option sounded unique and interesting so we set up a time for the next morning to visit ‘Acetaia Marisa Barbieri Giuliani.’

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When we arrived, Franca greeted us in perfect English and led us upstairs through her family’s home. Her mother, now in her late eighties still gives tours in Italian and French but Franca handles the English tours. When she opened the door to the attic the strong smell of balsamic vinegar immediately hit us. She explained that only Modena has the perfect climate for making balsamico: hot in the summer, cold in the winter and humid all year long. It is a precious tradition in her family, passed down for generations. Her grandmother learned from her father and later passed on the tradition to her.

When she had children, she started a set of barrels for each of them. Each set contains five barrels decreasing in size and has a cloth-covered opening on top to allow evaporation. Balsamico is aged in the series of wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years before it is ready to be extracted. Instead of taking all the balsamico at once after 12 years and having to start again, a small amount (approx. one liter) is removed from the smallest barrel once each year which is then refilled from the next smallest barrel, refilling as such until you reach the largest barrel which is refilled with cooked grape must. The farm-produced must is the juices from the grapes which are filtered and cooked for at least 12 hours before being boiled over flames and reduced in volume by 30% – 60%.

Baslamico is split into two categories, the ‘cheaper’ stuff has to be aged for a minimum of 12 years and the really good stuff for over 25 years. A lot of the product in the 25 + bottles has been ages for up to 100 years but because some of the product is newer (a small amount added each year) they can only label it as 25 +. Are you beginning to see why it costs so much?

Franca’s family had around 10 sets of barrels in her attic. Three belonged to her children which she is holding onto for them – one is living in Mexico, another in France and the only child in Modena doesn’t have an attic. I wonder what will happen to this family business in years to come as it becomes harder and harder in our modern world to pass down traditions. Especially a tradition so region-specific that one of her children would have to live in Modena (even Bologna, a town not 30 minutes away, doesn’t have the right climate) in a house with an attic. It is also not the most profitable business and can’t be the only income in the household. On my math, with 10 sets up barrels that’s about 10L of product per year, 10L =10,000mL at between 45 and 75 EUR per 100mL is approximately 6000 EUR per year and that’s assuming they keep none for themselves or as gifts for friends and relatives (not the case).

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An old photograph that was hanging on the wall in the attic

We learned a lot from our tour and thoroughly enjoyed our morning in the attic with Franca. Beyond the explanations and story provided by Franca and the rustic scene set in the attic, we were able to view several awards, certificates of expertise and old photographs (including some of her grandmother winning awards for their precious product) on the walls. Every year, every producer of ‘Aceto Tradizionale Balsamico di Modena D.O.P’ brings their product forward for judges to sample and rate. They must score over a certain number to be allowed to sell their product labeled as “Tradizionale”, and prizes are awarded for the best.

Included in our (amazingly, free) tour was a small taste of both the balsamicos. A couple drops of the thick brown liquid were placed on a spoon for us to sample. The rich, intense flavour was phenomenal from such a small amount, which was all you need to fully experience the flavour. Once we tried it and differentiated the taste from the balsamic vinegar we are used to, I understood why this tradition was so precious to Franca and her family. Sadly, we didn’t buy the product as it is something I would want to savor and a bottle I would keep forever and carrying that around in our luggage for the next six months didn’t seem reasonable. In the future, I will look for it and treat myself to some and I cannot recommend enough that if you are in Modena, or driving through that area – you must do a tour to learn (and sample) true balsamic vinegar.

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Because I hadn’t quite had enough of the food specialties Modena had to offer, I headed to Mercato Albinelli in the afternoon to try some more. Modena specializes in two types of honey: Chestnut honey and Wildflower honey. I bought a small container of wildflower honey infused with orange peel which is to die for. For lunch I tried a farro salad and a side of olives. Oh my god, the olives! I forgot what good olives tasted like, we just don’t get enough of them back home.

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On my way out the door I grabbed an ‘Amaretti di Modena’ a little treat sold at the bakery. After eating it outside, I went back in and bought another. It looked similar to a cookie; it was puffed up a bit but appeared as if it would be crunchy and flaky. Biting into it I was surprised to find a soft chewy inside that reminded me of marzipan. The comparison is accurate as the two of the three ingredients in Amaretti di Modena are the same as marzipan: crushed almonds and sugar, with the addition of egg whites in this case.

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Torre della Ghirlandina (church in Modena)

To finish off an amazing day filled with foodie moments, our host, Franseco invited us to join him for dinner with his friends at a restaurant where the chef was a close friend. True to most Latin countries, dinner wasn’t served at our North American 6PM standard time; we left for the restaurant around 9PM and didn’t start eating until around 10PM. And boy did we eat, we were served six courses, every one as delicious as the last. Lambrusco was served with the meal, a bubbly red wine from Modena that supposedly helps with digestion (necessary due to the amount of food served and eaten). We started with a simple pasta dish “Gramigna alla salsiccia”: short cut pasta topped with sausage ragu, a savoury dish from Modena.  Our second plate was a fusion dish of mashed pumpkin and fried plantain. Next we had tortellini (hand made by the chef especially for us without cheese in a delicious sauce with bacon). Our last pasta dish was egg noodles with porcini mushrooms. After pastas we were served shared plates of Torta Fritta, fried puffy bread that was beautifully crisp on the outside and soft on the inside (I need to learn how to make this amazing bread) served with a selection of salami and cured meat. Dessert was all about the drinks: coffee, Limoncello (lemon liqueur from Southern Italy), and Nocino (a walnut liqueur from Modena that I loved).

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A selection of our six course meal – if only the lighting was better!

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Enzo Ferrari Museum

To get us even more pumped up for the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Milan we are going to this weekend, as if just going wasn’t enough, we visited the Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena. The museum is housed in the house where Enzo grew up and his father had a garage. The collection of cars there is amazing and includes many near-perfect condition extremely rare models.

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5 thoughts on “Modena: The Truth and Tradition of Balsamic Vinegar

  1. Anna Jean Msllinson says:

    What a pleasure to find this before going to bed! The tour of the traditionally made balsamic vinegar is fascinating!It’s partly about time!
    The carrots are beautiful, the honey sounds delicious, and the Italian dinner sounds superb. It’s good to hear that people still live, work and eat together like this.

  2. John Tak says:

    Enjoyed your post. Last year we got to experience the larger basalmic farm tour just outside of Modena and the Ferrari museum. I indulged (Heather indulged me) and rented a Ferrari for an hour of country-side driving!

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