Today, balsamic vinegar is a highly prized delicacy made in the vinegar factories in Modena and Reggio Emilia and used as a condiment all around the world. The history of this vinegar goes back a very long time, one that is rooted in a rigorous tradition, with strong regional ties.
With its balanced, sweet and sour flavour, Modena’s “black gold” owes its deep-brown, glistening hue to a recipe that has been polished and perfected over centuries, earning it the PGI certification in 2009, and to a complex production process controlled by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena consortium.
It all starts with partially fermented and/or cooked and/or concentrated grape must, which is then mixed with wine vinegar and vinegar that has been aged for at least 10 years, and is then left to mature in wooden barrels. This maturation process can take as many as three years or more; in this case, it is considered to be PGI Aceto Balsamico di Modena Invecchiato, or aged balsamic vinegar. The origin of the grape also plays a crucial role when making balsamic vinegar: the grape varieties are carefully selected and include Lambrusco, Sangiovese and Trebbiano.
The area where the vinegar is made is also of paramount importance, and must be situated in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Balsamic vinegar has had close ties with these cities since the eleventh century, but it wasn't until the end of the sixteenth century, when the Este court moved from Ferrara to Modena, that a permanent bond was forged. Over time, balsamic vinegar came to be known simply as balsamico (balmy, with healing powers), as reference to its unique therapeutic properties, which were renowned as far back as Roman times.
Whilst it is true that balsamic vinegar can be used to complement just about any dish, from a starter to a dessert, experts recommend drizzling a young, light-bodied balsamic vinegar over cooked food, and a more full-bodied, older vinegar over salads, fruit and dessert.
If you want to learn all the secrets behind this “black gold” and fancy trying it straight from the barrels it is aged in, Modena’s vinegar factories open their doors every year for a day packed with tasting and guided tours known as the Acetaie Aperte. You can visit these factories all year round by appointment.