Balm to the heart: how medicinal vinegar became one of the most popular Italian spices

Balsamic vinegar is now found in almost all Italian dishes. “Around the World” went to Italy to learn the secrets of the Modena miracle

On a light yellow brittle piece of parmesan from a pot-bellied dark glass bottle, a viscous dark brown drop falls – one. It is in drops that the dosage of precious century-old balsamics is measured.

The pungent aroma with fruity notes tickles the nostrils, the sweet and sour taste is surprisingly soft and rich in shades. This is the oldest of the balsamics kept by Franco. The vinegar has matured since the beginning of the 20th century and was inherited by the owner of the achetaya from his grandfather.

Balm to the heart: how medicinal vinegar became one of the most popular Italian spices

The windows in the room on the second floor are covered with openwork nets, the room is shade and cool. In this part of the house, the di Pietri family keeps valuable types of balsamic vinegar. Barrels of various shapes and sizes lie in rows on shelves along the walls. In one of the corners there is a cupboard with apothecary-looking flasks, dark glass flasks and vials sealed with sealing wax.

At the end of the room, bottles with multi-colored labels are displayed on wooden shelves – achetaya products. Franco takes a thin hollow glass tube, lowers it into the barrel and gently draws in some of the liquid. Tasting it, he nods with satisfaction – apparently, the “elixir” is ready.

Franco di Pietri

Balm to the heart: how medicinal vinegar became one of the most popular Italian spices

Hereditary producer of balsamic vinegar.
Born in 1951. Lives (in 2020 – Note in the city of Casinalbo in the province of Modena. He owns La Bonissima acetaya, a family business that produces traditional balsamic. This is the smallest acetaya in the Modena area, founded in the early 1900s by Celestino di Pietri, the grandfather of the current owner. Franco's wife and two sons are also involved in the family business.

Lab tests

How do you evaluate the readiness of balsamic?

Firstly, it must have an acidity of at least 4.5%, secondly, a thick syrup-like texture, and finally, a well-balanced flavor. A real balsamic has a complex bouquet with pronounced acetic notes and is quite persistent – the smell does not exhale for a long time. The taste should be rich and harmonious: if acidity and sweetness are felt separately, without merging together, then the vinegar is not ready.

Franco takes a bottle of balsamic and pours some into a transparent flask. He brings it to the lamp, tilts it strongly and turns it slowly, watching how the thick liquid slides down the walls of the vessel. The bottom of the neck and round sides of the flask are dyed red-brown.

Balm on the heart: how medicinal vinegar became one of the most popular Italian spices

What can you learn about vinegar by its appearance?

This is the first of three parameters by which tasters evaluate balsamic. It includes color, viscosity and transparency. Young, unripe vinegar is light and not too stringy. A good product boasts a deep ruby ​​or brown color and runs very slowly. After examining the type of balsamic, we turn to aroma and taste. The smell is judged by purity, subtlety, richness and acidity. Taste parameters: fullness, intensity, aroma, harmony and acidity.

Franco puts several bottles of different sizes and shapes on the table and offers to try their contents. The taste is really different: in one, the vinegar is sour, in the other sharp, in the third sweeter.

Balm to the heart: how medicinal vinegar became one of Italy's most popular spices

I can't tell which of them are not yet ready. The most sour?

All these balsamics are already ripe and ready for sale. They differ in age. Please note: the smaller the container, the more expensive the vinegar. It is in 100 ml bottles that traditional balsamic vinegar is most often sold – Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (ABTM). Strictly speaking, it can be sold in 200 ml, and even 400 ml, but usually we don’t do it – this product is too expensive.

It meets stringent requirements, unlike Aceto Balsamico di Modena(“Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”). This is usually sold in containers of 250 ml or more, because it costs much less. For it, you can take grapes that did not grow in the vicinity of Modena, but in other regions, additives are allowed – for example, wine vinegar or caramel color for a dark color. The production technology of ordinary balsamic is much simpler, it does not need special containers, the minimum aging period is only 60 days.

And what about traditional vinegar?

No less twelve years old. This is affinato vinegar, that is, refined. And to get the right to be called extravecchio (vecchiomeans “old”), balsamic must mature for at least 25 years. By the way, before it was believed that the older the vinegar, the more healing qualities it has. They were treated for all diseases, from the plague to impotence.

Directly a panacea. Probably, every house had stocks just in case?

In ancient times, real balsamic was available only to aristocrats and the rich – it was too long and difficult to cook it. But farmers and townspeople used vinegar, which they also made from grape must and called balsamic. However, the cooking technology was very different.

After World War II, the simplified version of balsamic spread around the world, and the families who supported the traditional production technology became worried that the classic old recipe would not disappear. For the sake of its preservation, in 1967, the Consortium of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena was created. In Italian it sounds like Consorteria dell'Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena: the word is consorteria arose in the Middle Ages and meant either a secret group of noble and influential people, or friends. It can be said that our Consortium is a circle of initiates who are united by a love of balsamic.

Balm on the heart: how medicinal vinegar became one of the most popular Italian spices

What exactly does this “secret organization” do?

To protect and promote the culture and traditions of Modena associated with balsamic vinegar. The members of the Consortium are aware of all the intricacies of production and monitor the quality with the same zeal as the Dukes d'Este, at whose court a detailed classification of types of vinegar was developed in 1556.

Only a product that has passed the quality control of the Consortium , may be marked with DOC — Denominazione di Origine Controllata(Denomination controlled by origin). To keep the tradition alive, members of the organization have even started an antique balsamic making competition that has been held every June at St. John's Fair since 1967. The award is considered very prestigious, the best manufacturers are fighting for it. And the more people make vinegar according to the rules, the more guarantees that the ancient art of its production will be preserved.

Precious Potion

The first mention of the “praised” vinegar dates back to 1046. The Benedictine monk Donizone wrote in a chronicle that the Marquis Boniface of Canossa presented him to Henry III the Black, the future Holy Roman Emperor.

At first, balsamic vinegar was used in medicine. In 1508, Lucretia Borgia used it to facilitate childbirth, giving birth to her son Ercole II. During the plague of 1630, vinegar served as a “protective agent against infection”: it was added to water for washing and rinsing, and in addition, it was heated on the coals of a fireplace “against air pollution.” Composer Gioacchino Rossini mentioned in one of his letters that balsamic helped him get rid of scurvy.

Balsamic vinegar was also used as an aphrodisiac. For centuries, it served as an exquisite gift: in 1764, it was received from the Duke of Modena Francesco II by the Chancellor of the Russian Empire, Mikhail Vorontsov. And in 1792, Duke Ercole III d'Este presented such a gift to Emperor Franz I of Austria. honor of his ascension to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire.

See also

Strict recipe

Young balsamic ripens in a separate two-story building. On the first floor there is nothing but old instruments, all the most interesting things are on the second. It is dark in a small room, the eyes need to get used to it after the blinding Italian sun. There is a draft and a strong smell of grape vinegar.

What grape varieties do you use?

Typical of Modena. These are either white Trebbiano and Sauvignon, or red Lambrusco and Bercemino. Most often we use “trebbiano”, it has the highest sugar content. Hence the sweet note in the taste of traditional balsamic.

Do you make sweet wine and then let it sour?

No, the production technology of balsamic vinegar is different. The first stage is really the same as in winemaking: we crush the grapes to get the must. This must be done very gently and carefully, if you overdo it, there will be too much tannins from grape seeds and stems in the must, and the vinegar will be bitter.

The next step has nothing to do with winemaking: we put the must in a large cauldron without a lid and boil, without bringing to a boil, for half a day, until the volume of the wort is halved and the sugar content increases from 15–17 to 35–36%. After boiling and filtering, we keep the wort in a vat made of wood, copper or stainless steel, where fermentation takes place under the influence of yeast.

And at the end of February & nbsp; – the beginning of March, we pour the prepared raw materials into a large wooden barrel of badessa – in translation, the word means “abbess”. By this time, the cold ends, the temperature rises to 18-20 ° C, and acetic acid bacteria are activated.


Young, unripe vinegar is light and not too viscous. A good product boasts a deep ruby ​​or brown color and runs very slowly

Do you get cold?

For Italy, we have cold winters, in the vicinity of Modena, even snow can fall. The change of seasons plays a big role in the production of balsamic, we make it in ventilated, unheated rooms, where weather changes are well felt.

In spring and autumn there are often strong fogs, so moisture saturates the barrels, this helps microorganisms develop. In summer there is a thirty-degree heat, due to which the bacteria are sharply activated, and the aging of vinegar is most intensive.

The taste of the product depends on how rainy or hot the year turned out to be?

And from this too. Balsamic is influenced by many factors: grapes ripen differently every year, the must turns out to be of different taste and quality. Barrels differ, firstly, in wood, and secondly, in age. Balsamic that is aged in old barrels is more valuable than that matured in new ones: the older the barrels, the more they are soaked with vinegar and the better they are suitable for its aging.

ABTM production stages

1/10Preparation of raw materials. In autumn, the grapes are harvested by hand and the juice is gently squeezed out of itThe barrels lying on their sides are distributed by size – from large to small. On top of each is a piece of fabric, pressed down with a wooden block. Franco removes one rag, and the grape-vinegar aroma intensifies: a neatly cut rectangular hole is found in the wall of the barrel. The thickness of the tree seems disproportionately large, as if the boards go in two layers. The edges of the slit are blackened, corroded by acetic fumes, the cask itself is dark, dotted with spots and streaks.

Balm to the heart: how medicinal vinegar became one of the most popular Italian spices

Can vinegar eat through wood? ?

It happens, of course. As you know, in excessive quantities, the medicine turns into poison, balsamic vinegar is no exception. Look carefully, inside this barrel – another, smaller one, it is already completely black. When there is a danger that the vinegar will seep through the walls, we “sheath” the worn-out barrel with a second layer of wood.

What kind of barrels are generally used for balsamic?

Containers of various sizes are required. For the first stage, we sometimes take old wine barrels. For the next ones, special ones are already needed. We have been cooperating with the Renzi family for many years, they have been the most famous coopers of Modena since the 16th century.

Do you see a card attached to the lid of each of the barrels? Detailed characteristics are recorded there: the type of wood, the metal from which the hoops are made, the volume, the year of manufacture of the barrel and the time when it began to be used on the acetaya. We have the accuracy of a pharmacy. And all these details are important. Especially the type of wood.

How do different types of wood affect the taste of the product?

Oak, for example, gives balsamic a characteristic vanilla flavor, while chestnut adds tannins. Mulberry accelerates the concentration process, juniper gives a resinous tint to the palate, and cherry softens it. In order for balsamic vinegar to collect all this noble bouquet, we annually pour it from one barrel to another during aging. We do this at the end of winter, while the bacteria “sleep” so as not to interfere with the active processes of fermentation and oxidation. The principle of “do no harm” is good not only in treatment, but also in the manufacture of healing balms.

I see whole batteries of barrels here – from large to small. How does it work?

Ripening balsamic must sequentially visit each of this row of barrels, which is called “battery”. Traditionally, an odd number of barrels is taken, at least five. On this shelf you see seven. Every year we select about a liter of ripened vinegar from the smallest, last one. Another liter of vinegar per year simply evaporates through the holes. By the way, they are necessary for the balsamic to breathe.

So, in the last barrel, two liters were released. From the neighboring larger barrel, we pour two liters of vinegar into a small one, thus mixing the younger one with the older one. Three liters are released in the barrel – we took two, one evaporated. We take these three liters from the next largest, in which four liters are already released. And so on.

It is important to strictly follow the sequence so that the ratio of parts of vinegar of different ages remains correct and young raw materials do not “clog” more mature ones. In the smallest barrels, 10-15 liters each, century-old vinegar is stored, it can rightly be called precious. It takes three hundred liters of grape juice to make one hundred milliliters of this ancient balsamic.

See also

Therapeutic effect

Franco takes me to the attic of his house: special samples are stored here. The owner goes around small barrels, looks into the holes in them, carefully examines the oily liquid, sniffs, carefully covers the holes with rags, puts wooden presses on top.

Balm to the heart: how medicinal vinegar became one of the most popular Italian spices

These barrels don't look like a battery . Why are they the same size?

They are already many years old, vinegar in such barrels ripens by itself – the processes of fermentation and oxidation in them can go on endlessly. These two barrels are the same age as my sons. The one we pawned in the year of Francesco's birth is already thirty years old, the barrel of Alessandro is twenty-eight. And a little further —the balsamic that my father gave my wife, Donatella, on our wedding day.

Here, it turns out, your whole family is represented!

Several generations. For Italians, the family is very important, so there are barrels with the names of all relatives. The oldest one is over a hundred years old – it was founded by my grandfather Celestino, who founded the business.

Since the early 1900s, he had his own restaurant and hotel on the Via Emilia, near the city gates of Modena. On the track where the famous Mille Miglia races were held all over Italy. The restaurant was very popular, the residents of the city regularly gathered there to talk about this and that. Racing cars and balsamic are traditional topics of conversation. The restaurant is no longer there, but the balsamic has remained – now my sons help me make it, continuing the work of their great-grandfather.

And do you still discuss balsamic during feasts?

In the evenings we get together with the whole family – and for each dish we have a special kind of balsamic, which helps to reveal its taste. And – yes, we not only eat vinegar, but also actively discuss it. Among our friends there are also members of the Consortium, and other owners of acetai, so not a single gathering can do without this topic. Good food is accompanied by pleasant conversations that cheer up and bring pleasure to all participants in the feast. So it turns out that balsamic, which arose as a medicine for the body, has become for us a balm for the soul.

Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Balm to the heart: how medicinal vinegar became one of the most popular Italian spices

Modena Square 183.19 km²
Population ~ 184,700 people
Population density 1019 people/km²

Area of ​​Italy

Area of ​​Italy 302,072.84 km² (71st in the world)
Population ~ 58,823,000 (25th place)
Population density 199 people/km²

ATTRACTIONShistorical complex in Piazza Grande (Ghirlandina Tower and Cathedral of Modena), Palais des Museums, Ferrari Museum in Maranello, Albinelli Market, Fortress in Finale Emilia.
TRADITIONAL DISHES Zamponi (minced pork feet ), tortelloni with spinach and ricotta, Benson cake with lemon and almonds.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS sparkling wine lambrusco, walnut liqueur Nocino.
SOUVENIRSleather goods, parmesan, balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil.

DISTANCEfrom Moscow to Modena ~ 2245 km (3 hours 40 minutes flight to Bologna, then 35 km by road)
TIMEbehind Moscow by 1 hour in summer, 2 hours in winter
CURRENCY < /strong>euro


Material about published in the magazine “Around the World” No. 8, October 2020, partially updated in February 2023

Olga Ladygina


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