Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Visiting an Acetaia

On our second day in Modena, Italy, we drove south toward Bologna, specifically to the town of Vignola, in search of traditional balsamic vinegar. The morning started with a light sprinkle and we were hopeful the sun was coming out just for us because we had travel all that way for a lovely vacation. The GPS took us through narrow roads to a small town in the middle of the fields as the rain picked up clouding the view ahead. “You have reached your destination,” the GPS lady said, after we turned in to a residential neighborhood. The gated house looked too small to be a factory, of anything, let alone vinegar, but the name on the wall “La Cà dal Nôn” confirmed we had indeed reached out destination.

We rang the doorbell and a few seconds later the gates opened and from behind came out a woman, “Hello, my name is Mariangela,” she said, “welcome to our acetaia.”

We walked to the back of the house where two vine-trees wrapped around a pergola, I pulled out my umbrella and hunched over myself to conserve warmth as the morning turned colder. Mariangela pointed to the vines, “These are our two old ladies, we had three but one died suddenly,” she said as she padded on one of the vines, “these are Lambrusco vines, from my great grandfather’s time.” They still produce some fruit, she told us, but any stressors can kill them. “The rest of our grapes come from the vineyard not far from here,” she said.

The light sprinkle of rain and the cold air were no match to my faux leather jacket and I kept shivering, enough that she suggested we went inside to the tasting room. I laid my umbrella on the floor and walked toward the plastic chairs set up classroom style around a table full of balsamic products in front of a chalkboard with a drawing of the balsamic making process. “Let’s start with the name of our acetaia, the word nôn means grandpa in dialect,” she said, “and means house, so this is ‘the house of the grandfather’ since it was my great-grandfather who established the acetaia.” 

Culture and Balsamic Vinegar, a bit of history
Traditional balsamic vinegar is a product ingrained in the culture of Modena and the Emilia Romagna region, where the locals have produced it for hundreds of years, and kings and emperors loved and praised its unique flavor; luckily for us, Mariangela shared her contagious passion and exquisite knowledge of the history. The story goes that ancient Romans used to make a honey-like grape syrup called Saba all through the empire using the grapes of each region; in Emilia Romagna they used Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes, mainly. To make Saba, they cooked the pressed juice of overripe grapes in large copper cauldrons to evaporate water and concentrate the sugars yielding a dark brown syrup; Mariangela told us that scholars believe that balsamic vinegar came from the fermented saba that underwent a vinegarization and aging process.

Production
We walked to the aging room across the courtyard, as we entered the first room full of big barrels where the cooked and decanted must first goes in, we stood surrounded by the pungent, sweet smell of balsamic vinegar while Mariangela handed us shoe guards. We walked up a set of spiral stairs to the aging room where the air was thick and damp and the smell of balsamic intensified, alive on every surface of the room. There were series of barrels decreasing in size called batteria with the smallest barrels carrying the aged vinegar, some of peculiar shapes, including her grandfather’s barrels in a distinct oval shape. All of the barrels had a small white piece of cloth covering the hole on top to allow for evaporation, unlike wine barrels that are kept tightly closed to avoid lose of product, with balsamic evaporation is an intricate part of the final product.

Each season is important in the process of making traditional balsamic vinegar, said Mariangela. Fall is for harvest and cooking and working with the new product, and for microbial activity to develop flavor in the aging vinegar; the cold winter stops all microbial activity in the barrels and allows them to inspect the smaller barrels that are ready for bottling, and to top the smaller barrels with the vinegar from the next barrel in the batteria, plus to top the largest barrel of each batteria with the new cooked must; spring is cool and damp allowing for microbacterial activity to act on the vinegar adding intricate flavors; and the summer heat concentrates the vinegar through evaporation.
Mariangela told us about the regional tradition of starting a line of barrels, or batteria, for a newborn girl that is given to her as a wedding present. 

Taste
Back in the tasting room, Mariangela began with Saba, the pressed, cooked grape syrup, sweet and slightly acidic, perfect to add to baked goods or in savory recipes that call for honey. Then we moved to the balsamic condiments, “balsamic product that hasn’t aged for as long, it is thinner in consistency,” she said, “perfect to dress salads or to marinade meats.”

Then we jumped to the traditional balsamic vinegar, or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, D.O.P.; here is where age and hard work show their magic. “We produce five traditional balsamic vinegars, Franco named after my grandfather, Demetria named after my grandmother, both extra vecchio, Vittorio named after my father and labeled vecchio, plus another affinato and another extra vecchio,” she said.

traditionalbalsamicvinegar

Young vinegars of at least 12 years of age are called affinato, and vinegars 25 years old are extra vecchio. These vinegars are thick, silky, and with balanced levels of sweetness and acidity that linger in the tongue and wake the throat with a light tingle, all thanks to the slow evaporation of water, the microbacterial work that mellows the acid, and the different wood used in each of the different barrels of a batteria.

Mariangela gave us countless ideas of how to use each one of her products, from a few drops of an affinato on a fennel and orange salad {a Sicilian dish}, to using Saba to sweeten a chocolate and hazelnut cake. With value in mind, and the lack of suitcase space, we purchased a bottle of Franco, an affinato, a Saba, and a balsamo condiment, which I’m eager to start using as soon as I can emotionally detach myself from the memory. 

Traditional balsamic vinegar Vs. Grocery store balsamic vinegar
Toward the end of the tasting, Mariangela asked if we had any questions, she hinted, “You must have one question, it’s an important one,” we looked at each other and I thought to myself, “she explained everything in such detail I can’t think of anything.” Then she said, “Alright, I’ll ask the question, what is the difference between this balsamic and the ones we find at the grocery store for $5?” It was a valid question that our brains, romanticized by her spiel and the elixir of her products, had failed to consider.

Yes, what is the difference? And how can they be labeled Balsamic of Modena IGP, and be so inexpensive?

The answer, “The new rules of IGP (Indicazione geografica protetta) don’t cover the process of traditional balsamic vinegar production,” she said, “the only way a consumer knows a traditional balsamic vinegar is with the bottle shape and size, and the word Tradizionale and the initials D.O.P (Denominazione di origene protetta.)” Something I, as a consumer, didn’t understand until I visited the acetaia, and listened to Mariangela detailed the process and the difference in laws and regulations. “It doesn’t protect the work we as small producers of Tradizionale do, especially because we have to explain to the world the difference in price and the value, the time and cost of true balsamic vinegar,” she said.

Since, I’ve looked at the ingredients in the bottles of balsamic vinegar at the grocery store, many listing: wine vinegar, concentrated grape must, and caramel color; while all of the products we tasted at La Cà dal Nôn have only one ingredient: cooked grape must. Even if the bottle says Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, the process has no resemblance to the process of making traditional balsamic vinegar, and the taste and its health benefits don’t do either.

We left the acetaia enamored with Tradizionale, dreaming of a few more velvety drops of heaven, and ready for lunch at Trattoria La Campagnola.

Lunch at Trattoria La Campagnola
After the visit to La Cà dal Nôn, we went to lunch on Mariangela’s recommendation to visit a traditional restaurant with local offerings, Trattoria La Campagnola, just around the corner from the acetaia. It was pouring rain and the parking area of the restaurant was packed as expected at lunchtime on a Sunday.
“I really hope we can get a table,” I told my husband as we ran holding our umbrellas and avoiding puddles of water.

We walked in and waited on the front area looking around the walls to photos of fresh pasta and old hands making dough until a gentleman said, “Buongiorno!” Startled, we asked, “Un tavolo per due per favore,” he showed us the way and handed us the menu. We sat, opened the menu, all in Italian, and attempted to decipher the different options while searching for the typical regional dishes Mariangela had recommended we tried. “Do you remember any of the names?” I asked my husband, “No, but they were some sort of flat breads,” he replied. This was our second day in Italy, our first full on Italian experience, and our Italian language skills consisted on knowing how to ask for water, a table for two, wine, saying thank you, and repeating items out of a menu after searching on the translation app.

The entire room sang in Italian, as I looked around trying to find another English speaking fellow, not one. The staff zipped through the dining room, taking orders and delivering food. Our server snuck up on us with pen in hand resting on a small note pad, she stared at us waiting for a quick answer as we scrambled to put a sentence together in Italian. Finally, I asked, “Parla Inglese?” and she replied, “just a little bit.” We ordered a couple of pastas, tagliatelle ai funghi porcini, and gramigna pancetta e spinaci, plus cacciatora di pollo, but I also wanted to try the flat breads, so I asked, “Do you have the typical flat breads?” while rolling invisible dough on the air, “Ah! Yes,” she replied and scribbled something else on her pad. “To drink?” she asked, “Aqua, per favore” said my husband, “and a bottle of Falanghina, grazie.”
“A bottle?” I asked, “It’s only 11€,” he replied.

We settled in, glass of wine in hand while inspecting the room and the details around us. On the table, a small bowl with a creamy white paste heavily spiced sat next to the olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. “What do you think that is?” my husband asked, “I think is lard, wanna try it?” I said, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “maybe with the bread.”

The tagliatelle and gramigna pastas arrived steaming and fragrant of mushrooms and pancetta. “These are big portions!” I told my husband, as we both wrapped our forks on the lightly creamy bowls of deliciousness. Soon after, a plate with what looked to be fried dough arrived on the table, I wondered if this was the aforementioned traditional flat bread, then a younger server stood next to us and shouted, “Borlenghi?” as she held a plate of a giant folded crepe crunchy on the edges, “yes!” I replied convinced this was the flat bread we had ordered. “So what is this other fried dough?” my husband asked. A second later a basket with about eight English muffin-like breads arrived together with an 8” plate full of prosciutto and other cured meats, and a plate with three 4oz pieces of cheese. We looked at each other in disbelief, “Did we order all of these?” we both asked, “and we still have the chicken!” I said in a panic.

Quickly, I started looking around for our server to ask her if we could cancel the chicken dish as we had ran out of room on the table and soon in our stomachs, I spotted another server, a young girl, and asked her if she could help us, with my scrawny Italian and her limited English we settled at, “no pollo, per favore, could you please tell our server, grazie,” she disappeared as we continued to dig ourselves out of our lunch.

Our server came back a few minutes later, “No chicken, yes?” she asked, “yes!” we said, “Ok,” “Ok.” Then I pointed at each of the breads, “What is this?” I asked pointing at the English muffin-like breads, “tigelle,” she replied “with salumi misti e fromaggi,” then the giant crepe, “ah! Borlenghi,” and then the fried dough, “gnocco fritto, all traditional,” she said. Mariangela had told us that borlenghi is made of flour, melted lard and water, and cooked like a crepe batter in large flat skillets, “Very traditional,” she said. We wrapped the lightly crunchy borlenghi around prosciutto and chased it with a piece of cheese, gladly we didn’t have a blood test scheduled anytime soon or our cholesterol levels would have put us under the ‘at risk’ category.

My husband tried the lard on a piece of tigelle, “it’s nicely spiced and creamy,” he said, “but a little bit is enough.” We ate until our bodies turned limp on the chairs and then asked for a to go box for all of the cheese, some of the salumi, and the tigelle. They made for a great breakfast the next day.

With the rain as our eternal companion we drove to Bologna for an afternoon of sight seeing.

~ Paula 

2 thoughts on “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Visiting an Acetaia”

  1. Nothing like a thick and silky balsamic…you don’t know what your are missing until you tried the real thing! Enjoy your balsamico sounds like quite the experience.

    1. Yes! it was such a great experience to visit the acetaia and to chat with the producer herself, it helps understand how important this product is to a family and to an entire community who pride on the time and effort they put on producing a traditional balsamic. We’ll be enjoying it soon, that’s for sure 🙂

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