On the drive from the Parmigiano Reggiano factory one couple joked they would love to swim in the salt curing water. As I laughed, I remember thinking bring on some more Lambrusco! A long gravel driveway led us to a stately villa. It was 3 or 4 stories high with a bright red terracotta roof. Honestly, I don’t know if it really was or not, but that’s how I remember it. Chickens and roosters scattered into the grass clucking and pecking like mad men as we slowly made our way to an outbuilding. A caramel-y, sweet smell mingled with that of old wine greeted us at the door. We headed upstairs to the attic where traditional balsamic vinegar was aging.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP or Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
As I recall, tradition dictates that a family can only begin a new batteria, or set of casks, of balsamic at two moments in time–to celebrate a marriage or a birth. Each batteria is crafted of 5 different kinds of wood and arranged successively in size.
Each year, the smallest cask gives the vinegar output. No more than 1/3 of its contents can be emptied. The 1/3 that is taken out is replaced by 1/3 from the cask behind it, and so on. Fresh grape juice is added to the largest cask in the back. None of the casks are ever drained, and each become progressively thicker and more syrupy in texture as they become more concentrated over time, down to the smallest cask. This cask contains the most concentrated and longest aged sampling of the vinegar.
The tops of all the casks are covered by a piece of cloth which allows the vinegar to breathe and stops the fermentation process. Without getting to complicated, a sampling is sent to a consortium which blindly taste tests and decides yep, this is the bomb, or nope, goes back in until next year. If not approved for sale as traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, the villa can sell it as condiment grade vinegar. If given the a-o-k, it gets bottled by the villa in the same 100 ml size and shape bottle used by all the villas approved for sale as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP The bottle is then adorned with a color coated DOP seal indicating age, and a label identifying the villa.
We sampled many years of balsamic. Each lending something different to our taste buds. True balsamic vinegar D.O.P. as well as balsamic condiment of Modena take on the flavors found in the casks. Oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, etc. Factory condiment does not as it is rapidly fermented in stainless steel so there are no wood nuances to take on. The moment of truth arrives when fresh vanilla gelato is topped with balsamic vinegar aged over 100 years known as extra vecchio.
Already lovers of true balsamic, we picked up a bottle of the extra vecchio on this tour which recently brought food passion back to me. I often find myself day dreaming of an Italian wedding taking place among the family’s Trebbiano vineyards over 100 years ago when I enjoy our bottle. I find myself remembering amazing Italian meals each time I smell or taste the contents. More so, I remember the company many Italian meals have been shared with–a professor, old and new friends, my husband. I remember the weather, the trip, the table setting. Food is the gateway to memory for me. Aceto Balsamico for me happens to open the gate.
Many Courses, Many Wines
We wrapped up the tour with a beautiful group meal. Alessandro’s partner Barbara joined us with their daughter. Pegged as a “lite lunch” this was far from that. How lite? Many hours long and 7 or 8 courses. We dined on the grounds of an organic winery, Inn, and restaurant.
Rolling hills surrounded us, and the leaves on the vineyards just started to emerge from their winter’s slumber. Alessandro and Barbara’s daughter was just gaining confidence in her little legs. She’d climb down the patio into the grass, and back up, and so it went for a while. Then she’d run to each of us asking for bread, or cheese.
Each course was paired with a wine from the vineyard. The highlight of the meal for me was ravioli stuffed with potato and mortadella in a butter and sage sauce. Honestly, the rest of the meal is kind of a blur of wine, laughter, closing my eyes in bites of ecstasy, more wine, and more laughter.
This experience was more than a food tour. It was the first time I believe I really adopted my motto that strangers are friends you haven’t met yet. New friends were made that day with one language in common, taste.
Part 1 of 3: Explore Italian Food, Bologna Style with Italian Days Food Tour
Part 2 of 3: Explore Italian Food, Parmigiano Reggiano DOP