Made in Modena
The city of Modena is a jewel, but one that shines unassumingly, set just beside the centre-piece. There are a couple of renowned Italian classics that belong entirely to Modena but walking the wide, tranquil streets of this classy, historic city, you're easily lulled into a safe sense of complacency. Modena, sitting between Bologna and Parma, feels very unlike bustling, medieval Bologna (the shiniest diamond in the region's crown) and serenely basks in its glow because this city is content to take all the credit for the few treasures that she lays claim to. This is the home of Ferrari, Pavarotti, Balsamic Vinegar, Lambrusco and Osteria Francescana, pochi ma buoni - not many, but good.
As with most of Italy's culinary delicacies, there are strict rules to be followed.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is officially made in the region of Emilia Romagna, in Modena or Reggio Emilia. It's named Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia.
The balsamic vinegar we readily find in shops is Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Notice this is not 'traditional' and it's not DOP - Protected Designation of Origin, meaning only one step of the production must pertain to a specified geographical area. In this case, the grapes used in our bog-standard balsamico must be from the region. But don't be fooled into thinking this is lesser quality, it's just less strict (but still strict).
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale
The 'top del top' is known as 'black gold' and dates back to Roman times with traces seen in history of a similar substance from the region. Vinegar is a good way to use the must, left from grapes during the production of wine and there's a lot of that going on round here.
Lambrusco and Trebbiano grape must (pressed stems, seeds and skins) is reduced to create mosto cotto, a thick syrup which is aged in barrels for years. A series of casks constructed from cherry wood, juniper, chestnut, mulberry and ash become smaller in size as a portion of the vinegar evaporates throughout the process, known sweetly as 'The Angels' Share'.
We're talking time here.
At least 12 years.
Traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia uses label colour to denote its age: red is 12 years, silver 18 and gold 25 or more. Modena uses a white cap to signify its aged over 12 years and a gold cap with the inscription extravecchio (extra-old), to show the vinegar has matured for at least 25 years. What's more, the bottles are shaped differently; Reggio Emilia's bottle is tall and tulip-shaped, Modena's is round with a rectangular base.
The most substantial difference between the 'traditionale' DOP vinegars and IGP from Modena is not the price, but the time taken to mature.
Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP
Most IGP Balsamic vinegars are aged from 2 months up to three years but some go as long as 15 years with labels becoming shinier and bottles becoming smaller. The complex, syrupy flavour matures with age while the vinegar becomes thicker and darker.
This is the one we use at MangiaMangia, after taste-testing a variety to ensure the flavour is deep and rounded. We also adore the concentrated balsamic glaze, found readily in Italy and in the Italian sections of international shops, divine, especially on mozzarella or burrata and salads.
These people are proud of their worldly-famous product but as as tempting as it may be to drizzle it everywhere, as you guessed it, some things work with aceto balsamico and some do not.
Generally it is called-upon to bring a strong flavour to the table, thus is used sparingly in drops as a gentle compliment.
Parmigiano Reggiano and mortadella are local to Emilia Romagna, you'll often see a couple of chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano beside a cold glass of wine with a drizzle of aceto balsamico, as a classically regional antipasto.
In Italy it will be used in restaurants to bring flavour to steaks or scallops or grilled shrimp and due to its sweet notes, you may find aceto balsamico dripped on top of fresh strawberries or pears or even onto panna cotta.
In conclusion, a small glass of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale might be sipped at the end of a gorgeous Emiliano meal as a digestivo. And we'll conclude here too, with this lovely thought...
Look for quality in this beautiful product, a few drops will bring you the joy of warm Emilian sunshine and a contended sigh, and if there's anything worth paying extra for, it has to be a sense of well-being.