Think You Know Balsamic Vinegar?
Updated: May 11, 2022
One of my favorite food condiments is vinegar, like all types of vinegar, balsamic, apple cider, champagne, you name it, I like it. It's one of those things that just jazzes up any kind of salad or side dish and is also incredibly healthy for you. When I found out I'd be going to Modena, Italy (the capitol of balsamic vinegar) I knew I needed to do a deep dive and explore how it's made and what makes it so special. To make a long story short, I had absolutely no idea what REAL balsamic vinegar was like or how it was made.
But first and foremost, let's talk about Modena, Italy, the capitol of balsamic vinegar. Ever heard of it? Nope? Well neither did I until I realized I'd be going there for work. I immediately started looking up what Modena was known for and over and over again, I kept seeing that it's where really great balsamic vinegar is made. Once I got to Modena, I knew I needed to check out some balsamic vinegar shops and sample some for myself. Here's what I learned:
How it's Made: Balsamic vinegar is unique because it's actually made from grape must, which is a syrup made from boiled down grape juice and its concentrated sugars. The product is then fermented over time to deepen its flavor and creates a syrupy, sweet end product. Commercial balsamic vinegar is aged for about 2 months (and is mixed with other vinegars to speed up the acidification process), while traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena is aged from 12 to 25 years!
History of Balsamic Vinegar: I won't go into a whole lot of detail here but suffice it to say that Balsamic vinegar has a long history of being used by the aristocratic elite in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Sometime in the 16th century, when Modena became the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, the Duke d'Este and his family moved to Modena and found that families there had been making a special kind of vinegar in their homes. The Duke liked the vinegar so much he developed his own product and from then on gave it to guests at parties and banquets. It was so good it was soon known as "the Duke's Vinegar."
It's a Family Affair: Even though balsamic vinegar had become popular among nobles, it was still considered a traditional family secret or heirloom that was passed down from generation to generation. I actually had the chance to see a working family farm and found out that most families have a fermented balsamic vinegar 'mother' that they use to develop new batches of vinegar over time. You can actually see rows of barrels that belong to each generation up in the family attic. In fact, when a new family member is born, it's traditional to start a new batch for them, so each family has a unique vinegar that they can call their own, which I think is just amazing!
How to Shop for Balsamic Vinegar in Modena: When you visit Modena, you'll inevitably want to bring some of that famous vinegar home with you. When I visited there were two terrific stores I would highly recommend.
Acetaia Giusti: Right in the middle of Modena's town square, you'll find Giuseppe Giusti. Although a popular brand, this is a family production that has been around since 1605. Fun fact: Giuseppe Giusti used to be the official court supplier of balsamic vinegar when Italy was still a monarchy. I had no idea what to expect when I first stepped foot in that store. I thought buying some balsamic vinegar would be really easy but it turned out to be a little more complicated than I expected. I was happy to find that the salespeople take their time with you and basically won't let you leave until you've tried many different types and years of vinegars to ensure you get the right one. I was given a tiny spoon and a drop of vinegar for each taste. I was introduced to 5, 10, 25 and even 100 year old 'vintages' of balsamic vinegar, each one smooth and tangy, rich and syrupy. Truly nothing I had ever tasted before in the U.S., which can be fairly watery and simply acidic.
But what really struct me was how precious the different vinegars were to the family and how much time they put into the packaging. It was almost overwhelming trying to pick the right one for me because they were all so beautifully presented and tasted so good. I mean you can't go wrong when your vinegar comes in it's own velvet lined, wood case! Here are a few pictures of the different balsamic vinegars and the tasting table, organized by year and displayed beautifully throughout the store.
Cantina Estense: This was another store I found while walking around Modena, also very close to the main town square. They specialize in wine and olive oil as well as balsamic vinegar, but had a wide variety to sample from. I really appreciated the salesperson who also took the time to walk me through the different vinegars and had me sample each one before I found the type I liked. They also had gorgeous packaging of their vinegars which made a terrific gift for my family back home.
How to See Balsamic Vinegar Production: Shopping for balsamic vinegar in Modena is a lot of fun, but if you're like me, you'll probably want to go deeper and see how it's actually made. One way to do that is to go to a family farm and support agrotourism, where a family works to produce some type of food or agriculture that brings business into their home. On my trip to Modena, I was able to visit a home like this and was taken up to the attic to the see the rows upon rows of vinegar barrels and hear how balsamic is made. They usually also have their own product available to buy as well which I really enjoy supporting. If you can't make it to a family home to see how balsamic vinegar is made, there's also the Balsamic Vinegar Museum right in the center of Modena's town hall. You can visit the museum with a guided tour Friday- Sunday.
One last thing about REAL balsamic vinegar from Modena. It's generally treated as a delicacy and a main ingredient in most recipes. With that in mind, you'll want to know where it's coming from and what year tastes best to you. Also, consider really letting the balsamic vinegar stand out on its own when you use it in your meal, not as an afterthought. After talking with a lot of people in the know, I found out that light balsamics are great drizzled over grilled vegetables and in salads, medium intensity balsamics over cheese and paired with beef and long-aged, more complex balsamics are terrific with tortellini, with berries and gelato and even drizzled simply over parmigiano reggiano cheese. In fact, one of my favorite meals in Modena included a simple hunk of really good parmesan cheese drizzled with thick 25 year balsamic vinegar. OMG what a moment...
I'm sure you'll never look at balsamic vinegar the same way again, I know I wont!