“Grape juice, time and passion and nothing else” explains Roberto “There is no sugar in genuine balsamic vinegar.”
I’m at Casa del Balsamico Modenese di Giuseppe Cattani, producers of the first organic traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena D.O.P. where the knowledge of this artisan tradition has been passed down through the generations, beginning with the sweet white Trebbiano grape grown in their own vineyards. I’m about to find out not only how their balsamic vinegar is made but how it should be used.
Producing traditional balsamic vinegar
Traditionally made balsamic vinegar is the epitome of slow food. After harvesting the grapes are pressed ‘softly’ to produce the very best must (freshly pressed fruit juice still containing the skins, seeds and stems of the fruit). The maturing process that follows has remained unaltered through the years and of course no preservatives, additives or artificial flavourings are used.
The same day that it is pressed the juice is heated to reduce it by 30 to 40% to a dark syrup. This is kept at room temperature for one month. It is then placed in large barrels for 2 to 3 years for its first fermentation. There will be a battery of at least 5 or 6 barrels, each one smaller than the last. The barrels can be made of different wood, typically oak, acacia, chestnut, cherry, juniper and holly and each imparts a distinct flavour to the vinegar. Every year the smallest barrel is emptied and refilled from the next size up, which is then refilled from the next size up to that and so on up to the largest barrel which is re-filled from the balsamic that has just finished its first fermentation. While in the barrels the vinegar soaks into the wood and moisture evaporates thickening the balsamic further. Throughout this process there is a very slow but continuous fermentation.
Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena D.O.P.
Sadly, much of what is on sale here in the UK supposedly as balsamic vinegar of Modena, is most probably a cheap watery vinegar flavoured with caramel. It’s mass produced in a few hours rather than lovingly prepared over many years. When buying traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, always check the ingredients, which should simply be grape must (or in Italian mosto cotto). If it’s the real deal it should be thick and syrupy and as it touches your tongue you’ll taste complex woody flavours, with a perfect balance of sweet and sour. The older the balsamic is, the sweeter and thicker it gets and, understandable, the more it costs.
To be awarded the D.O.P. distinction - Denominazione di origine protetta (Protected Designation of Origin), the balsamic vinegar is tasted by a consortium of 6 or 7 experts. To be labelled D.O.P. it can only be sold in a particular shaped 100ml bottle, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, better known for his car designs. The youngest balsamic with this distinction is 12 years old, while the ‘extra vecchio’ on the label means that it is at least 25 years old.
It should be stored in a firmly stoppered glass bottle away from light and any sources of extreme heat or cold.
Balsamic Vinegar Recipes
While we were at Casa del Balsamico Modenese, Roberto and his wife shared some lovely recipes for balsamic vinegars of different ages.
Paprikas with Balsamico
Aceto Balsamic di Modena (8 years old)
2 large onions,
5 or 6 tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil
Aceto Balsamic di Modena “8″
Cut the onions and peppers into slices and fry in extra virgin olive oil. Slice the tomatoes and add to the pan. Once the liquid from the vegetables has been absorbed, stir in three tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt. Leave to simmer, adding a little water to keep it moist as required, until the vegetables are cooked.
Young balsamic is also great for dressing fresh salads, mixing with mayonnaise or for flavouring sauces drizzled over cooked meat. If used in cooking it is normally the very last thing to be added.
Scallop of Pork with Balsamico
Aceto Balsamic di Modena (12 years old)
Scallops of pork
Flour to coat the pork
Small cup of consommé
Aceto Balsamic di Modena “12″
Pound some pieces of lean, boneless pork until they are fairly flat. Coat in a thin layer of flour. Warm equal quantities of oil and butter in a pan. As soon as they start to sizzle add the pork, a pinch of salt and a teaspoonful of balsamic. Cook both sides of the pork while gradually adding the consommé. Once the liquid has absorbed serve immediately.
Risotto with Balsamico
Aceto Balsamic di Modena (18 years old)
350 g of rice
110g of butter
Laurel leaf and rosemary (optional)
Dry dark Red wine 1/2 litre
Parmesan cheese grated
Aceto Balsamic di Modena “18″
Cook the herbs with the onion in 60g of butter. Add the rice and simmer for a minute. Add the consommé and when this starts to boil add the wine which should be absorbed. After ten minutes add the cheese and remaining butter. Stir well and let it simmer for a couple of minutes. Just before it has finished cooking add two table spoon balsamic vinegar to taste and a little more cheese.
Parmesan flakes with Balsamico
Aceto Balsamic di Modena (25 years old)
Slice the cheese and arrange on a plate with a little rocket garnish. Drizzle a little vinegar onto the cheese and serve immediately.
Strawberries with Balsamico
Aceto Balsamic di Modena (40 years old)
Aceto Balsamic di Modena “40″
Wash and cut strawberries into bite size pieces. Add a little sugar to taste. Sprinkle in the balsamic vinegar. Serve with vanilla ice cream.