The Patience of Modena Tastes Like Liquid Gold
As I sat down to write this article, my fingers were frozen over the keys: what was it like to visit a legitimate acetaia all those months ago, while I visited Bologna in October? I blanked. And then panicked. Memory fades over time. You can’t quite remember the way a voice sounded, or the time frame something was done in, but you almost always hold onto the feeling of the moment. So, I did this little trick I learned over the years, I closed my eyes and thought about the most potent part of that visit, which was clearly the tasting, and BAM, I’m back…
My belly was pleasantly full of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, mortadella, and Lambrusco wine as we set off for the next stop on our journey, a DOP-approved acetaia (balsamic vinegar maker). After the elaborate cheese-making experience, I thought I had seen the peak level of devotion needed to create one of the prides of Emilia-Romagna. Nope. Making balsamic vinegar is a serious labor of love.
We pulled up to a countryside property that was singularly Italian: a gravel driveway that wound through a hodge-podge of houses and small structures, amidst what looked like a secret garden, with vines and rows of plants and nature buzzing about. We were led into the largest building, and up three narrow sets of stairs to the attic of this massive farmhouse. Ducking and dodging the ceiling beams, we crowded into a dim room that was filled with barrels of various sizes, called batterie. Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, five barrels were lined up on their sides in tidy rows, getting successively smaller, to about the size of a football, and all of them were filled with vinegar. Looking around, it seemed almost unimpressive with the lack of action… until our guide explained the process. Mamma mia, the patience!
Traditional balsamic vinegar begins with the grapes. They must be Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes, both native to the Modena area. They must be pressed and cooked almost simultaneously, for several hours, until they are reduced to half the volume. The grapes have now become “must” and it rests for a season (about 4-6 months), before fermenting in the “mother” barrel, which is the barrel from previous balsamic batches and contains the bacterias needed to ferment the liquid. Next this liquid is moved to the largest wooden barrel, where it will sit for a year. Each barrel is made from various hardwoods (chestnut, mulberry, cherry, oak, etc.) and has medium-sized holes cut in the top, covered with cheesecloth to allow air flow and evaporation to occur. Each year, like a birthday ritual, the liquid is transferred to the next size barrel, filling it up about ¾ of the way, and letting it sit. Again. For at least a year. The process is repeated until the tiniest barrel has had the fermented liquid in it for over a year.
Now, you could stop here and probably be content with what you have. However, if you want to get the important DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) stamp of approval, you need to let that fermentation occur for at least 12 years! And then you send a sample to the DOP tasters (which there are not many) and let them be the judge of your vinegar. And if you get the approval for an official DOP product, and you choose to sell it, you must put it in the official DOP bottle, which is about seven inches tall and bulbous on the bottom, coming to a slightly rectangular base. You cannot sell your vinegar, and call it DOP, if it is not in this special glass phial developed by the renowned race car designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro.
It is pretty clear why it is impressive. Who has the patience to wait 12 years to make something that would be sinful to waste on a salad, but would make the King of Cheese sing? But this process is really heavy on love. The “love” comes from the centuries-old tradition of the vinegar. You see, most vinegar producers didn’t start on a whim; it was passed through the generations. The barrels themselves were passed down through the family. The “mother” barrel entrusted to sons throughout the centuries. Fathers starting a batteria for every daughter born, ensuring that her dowry will be a rich one. The beauty of the vinegar is not just its sweet, syrupy goodness, but the love of an entire family, mixed with centuries of tradition and trust.
Patience is a virtue, and if you’re lucky, it tastes like liquid gold.