When getting ready to go on the trip, my Mom and I talked about our "must-do" items. One of my priorities was a food-based tour in the Emilia-Romagna region. I needed to narrow it down from the many options available in the region: parmigiano-reggiano cheese, olive oil, tortellini/pasta, wine, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar. I decided that traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena would be a good one to pursue, so I contacted the consortium that regulates and controls this product. They, in turn, put me in contact with Emilio of the Acetaia Villa Bianca. This was how we came to find ourselves driving through the magnificent gates of a private 17th century villa on a picture perfect September day in Modena, Italy.
I had no idea that we would be the only ones taking a tour that day, but was really thrilled that it worked out that way. Our timing was perfect for another reason, too. It was harvest time!
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from mostly white grapes that are pressed, boiled/reduced down and then aged in barrels. Thanks to the timing of our visit, we were able to witness all stages of the process including seeing the grapes on the vine, in freshly harvested crates, just pressed and in the midst of the reduction process.
|one of the presses with the boiling vessel in the background|
|fiber left after the grapes are pressed|
We then moved indoors to the upper floors of the house where the barrels of vinegar that have passed the test are aged and stored. Only the best quality vinegar makes it up to this part of the process. For the first 6 years it is aged elsewhere and then assessed for quality before being integrated into the barrels in the tower.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is different from other types of vinegar in that it is made from juice that was not fermented or turned alcoholic first. The juice ferments over time in these barrels that are loosely covered with cloth. The air exposure and temperature play a factor in the process.
Another important aspect of the traditional vinegar has to do with the blending process. The vinegar is moved from barrel to barrel as it reduces and ages. Once a barrel has balsamic in it, it is never completely emptied. Rather, when it is time to make space, a portion of the vinegar is taken out and moved to the next barrel in the array (collection of barrels that get progressively smaller). The vinegar that is shifted forward is being blended with the vinegar that is already aging in the barrel. Because of this blending process, it is impossible to know exactly how old the vinegar is. They label it as "at least" and then put an age on it, which is a way of identifying the youngest addition to the vinegar barrel.
The Biancardi family has been producing vinegar for six generations. Claudio, the current patriarch of the family, has turned it from solely producing vinegar for the family into a family business. The barrels on the table in the photo below hold some of the oldest vinegar in the family. I love the history and connection present in these antique barrels. It would be so neat to be from a family where you could have such a tangible, edible connection to the efforts of your ancestors.
We tasted from a series of barrels, noticing how the flavor and texture changed over time. We even sampled some of the highest quality balsamic vinegar on the market: the "at least 25 years old" vinegar. When it is aged that long, the texture is past syrup stage but not quite to molasses. The flavor is complex with sweet and savory notes and not much of that acidic bite you would expect from vinegar. In other words, it is a world apart from the balsamic vinegar you can buy at the supermarket.
We learned how the vinegar is tracked and tested by the consortium in order to assure that it meets quality standards before being bottled and sold. Each bottle is coded and labeled to guarantee that it meets those standards and to identify the producer. As you might guess, a small bottle goes for a high price but after experiencing a tour like this, the price seems well worth it. If you are curious, you can learn more about the process on the acetaia's website.
As if that wasn't amazing enough, our tour also included a "light lunch", which you can see wasn't all that light! Everything we were served featured their balsamic vinegar and other ingredients from their land and the region. Irene, Emilio's mother, was a joy to talk with and created the delicious and beautiful spread for us. Thanks to Irene, I have confirmation that the term "selfie" is international when she excitedly declared, "facciamo un selfie!" to my mom and I.
Also thanks to Irene, we have this picture to prove how she kept us laughing at lunch. She took this and sent it to us after our tour along with some restaurant recommendations for Venice (our next destination!). I will be using some of what we ate at that lunch as inspiration for what I will make when I open the bottle of vinegar I brought home.
My mom and I both had such a fantastic time touring their operation, getting to know the family and tasting the delicious fruits of their efforts. Emilio was an excellent tour guide. He and Irene both made our time in Modena a part of the trip we will look back upon with fondness.