Another food adventure on our Italian bucket list was to learn more about balsamic vinegar. Once again, like our Parmigiano Reggiano experience, after leaving our balsamic tasting we realised just how little we knew about it to begin with.
Balsamic making is fascinating and can be considered an art. It has firm traditional roots and the few families that make traditional balsamic vinegar are extremely proud and deeply immersed in the culture that comes with the production. We have a new appreciation for the product, and have realized through the experiences of meeting with suppliers how important it is, as a consumer, to understand where our products are coming from and how they are made.
The industry of traditional balsamic vinegar is family run, completely entrenched in tradition and, like Parmigiano Reggiano, very highly regulated. We were lucky enough to get a tasting at Acetaia Malpighi, a fifth generation, and the biggest, producer of traditional balsamic vinegar in the entire collection of families. There is only a total production of 3000 bottles per year, of which Malpighi produces 1000 bottles.
Many of us have come across balsamic vinegar in the supermarket thinking it is traditional as it is called ‘Balsamic Vinegar of Modena’. This is not traditional balsamic vinegar and usually contains a mix of wine and other additives like caramel, which enhances the viscosity and appearance. Traditional balsamic vinegar is exceptionally hard to find and has absolutely no additive ingredients.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from black Labrusca and white Trebbiano grapes. The ratio used of these grapes is dependent on family preferences. The grapes are harvested, pressed and then the liquid is cooked for 2 days turning it into a black juice called grape must. After this, the aging process begins. The aging barrels are arranged in descending size order, in sets of five. Each barrel is a different ‘flavour’. Malpighi’s flavours are cherry, juniper, mulberry, oak and chestnut. The flavours can be used in any order to play with the resulting taste of the vinegar.
Each barrel is filled to a set level with the grape must. The barrels are kept open, covered by a muslin cloth, in a warm room (in Malpighi’s case their attic) to allow for fermentation and evaporation. As the liquid in these barrels evaporates a portion is transferred from bigger barrel to smaller barrel down the line ending with the smallest, the ‘queen’ barrel. This barrel will technically have each flavour from the barrels before. The big barrel will then be filled with the grape must from the new harvest and the cycle continues.
Traditional balsamic vinegar must be aged for a minimum of 9 years to qualify and abide by legal regulations. As you can see this is an extremely long process and the blending of flavours by arranging the order of the barrels does become an art. These barrels are never washed so the flavour of the barrel becomes more and more intense, intricate and developed as the years pass. Because of the different infusions present in the old barrels some can be sold for up to €40 000, yes, my jaw dropped too. Malpighi’s oldest barrel is from the year 1730-287 years old- worth a fortune I’m sure.
In terms of tradition, the barrels and production techniques are passed down to each new generation. On special occasions, like weddings, barrels are gifts and with the birth of new children a special batch is started. This will be given to the child on his or her 18th birthday.
The production of all traditional balsamic vinegar is bottled and packaged in the same bottle in the same box with only the labels differentiating the families. Once you have seen this packaging, you will never be conned into thinking non-traditional balsamic vinegar is traditional. There are a few other differences:
- The bottle is a consortium approved, glass, standardised bottle. The consortium only hands over these bottles after tasting the vinegar and approving of the quality.
- The name will state ‘Traditional” rather than “Balsamic of Modena”.
- The balsamic vinegar must be produced in the Emilia Romagna region.
- The traditional vinegar will have ingredients of only “musto cato” which is the cooked grape must.
When it comes to taste, the traditional balsamic vinegar truly supersedes the rest. They are a dark black colour with beautiful sheen and natural thick viscosity. There is a depth of flavour and intensity that I have never experienced before. The thick and glistening 12 year old traditional is recommended for steaks, pasta or risotto. The beautiful caramel like 25 year old is recommended for ‘the king’: Parmigiano Reggiano and vanilla ice cream (can you get any more indulgence).
Our tasting included other vinegars, all were exquisite, and there were some that I would have liked to ‘taste’ an entire glass. We tried a beautiful 6 year old balsamic vinegar that is recommended for everyday use on items like tomatoes or breads. Two white grape vinegars, a 6 year and an 8 year old which had a beautiful lightness and sweet taste to it, it almost tasted like fresh, light dessert wine- what better to put on your salad- I would eat a whole lot less pizza and more salad if it tasted like dessert wine. There is a beautiful sweetness and complexity of flavour so different from the one before.
I was mortified by the price before I visited the establishment but when I tasted the product and understood the process it made sense. Direct from the supplier, a 12 year old 100ml bottle goes for around €47 (-+ZAR750) and a 25 year old 100ml bottle will see a price of about €75 (-+ ZAR1200). If the balsamic is aged for 25 years, from 100L of grape must the resulting yield is only 0.5L of traditional balsamic vinegar, that’s a total of 5 bottles. So you can understand how rare and exceptional this product truly is.
Along with the 12 year old balsamic vinegar for the collection we also bought white truffle balsamic vinegar because no, you can never have enough truffle products. So far we are bringing home truffle jam, truffle oil, truffle salsa, truffle butter and the truffle vinegar… oops.
I was mind blown by the entire process, almost speechless (you know how unusual that is). I have the utmost respect and admiration for these people who are producing such wondrously beautiful products. If you are at all interested in food and you ever get the chance to taste traditional balsamic vinegar take it. It may seem dramatic to say it was life changing but as chefs and in general as people who happily allow our lives to revolve around food and these products it was an exceptional life-time experience.