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Discovering True Balsamico Tradizionale in Reggio Emilia

Alice Twain

Balsamico has quickly become a food fashion in the US, just like in Italy, due to the recent popularity of low-quality "balsamico di Modena" on sale in supermarkets for a fraction of the cost of a vial of true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. Truth is that this kind less expensive product is a long way from the real stuff.

In order to discover in full the production method and characteristics of true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia I took a tour at the Acetaia San Giacomo in Novellara, where the traditional Balsamic is made.

What is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale?

Balsamico Tradizionale

So, what is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale? And why is it so costly? And why are the cheap commercial brands are not the same thing?

One thing to consider when purchasing the real Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia is that the product you are buying is aged a minimum of 12 years (for the red/lobster label one) and up to 40-50 years (the gold label). Each 100 ml vial (about 1/5 of a pint) of silver label Balsamico Tradizionale (aged from 12 to 24 years) is produced by slow concentration of 50 liters of grape must, the equivalent of 67 bottles of wine all concentrated in a single tiny vial!

No wine is used in the production of the Balsamico Tradizionale: while regular aceto is produced from wine, Balsamico Tradizionale is made exclusively with grape "must" that goes through a series of natural refining processes.

First, the must is boiled to concentrate it, reducing it to half of the original volume. This concentrate must is known as saba and is an excellent sweetener, wonderful on plain cream or vanilla gelato or with fruits, or even on crushed ice for a homemade granita.

In the old times, a winter treat was a glass of freshly fallen snow topped with a little saba! For the summer, on the Appennini mountains the snow was preserved in semi-subterranean buildings, a tradition that dates back to the Roman Empire, and the rich people could enjoy this treat in summer too.

Later, this saba is put into large vats and left with the bacteria that produces vinegar. After a while the product is a mildly sweet and sour, brownish vinegar, called agro di mosto. This is when the things get interesting. This mild vinegar gets transferred to smaller barrels for the aging process.

This is unlike any other aging process in the world. The barrels are organized in rows (batterie) from larger to smaller, each in a different wood (usually oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, ash and juniper). The vinegar ages and concentrates in the barrels, and yearly the smaller barrel get filled up with Balsamico Tradizionale coming from the upstream larger one and so on, until the largest barrel is topped with the agro di mosto produced that year.

Balsamico tradizionale

Barrels of Balsamico tradizionale aging

The final product, drawn from the smallest barrel, will not be drawn for selling for at least 12 years since the whole process started (for the red/lobster label). By then the liquid will have concentrated to a jelly-like consistency with a unique taste and flavor.

Now that you have learned all this, you can understand why the Balsamico Tradizionale is so pricey. So what is the cheap stuff on sale at supermarkets? It's essentially cheap wine vinegar flavored with saba (and often artificial flavors too) and colored with caramel. A long way from the process that leads to true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is produced by a number of small producers in the Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces of the Emilia Romagna region in Italy. Each of these provinces has its own consortium and "brand". Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia are PDO products recognized by the EU. Read more about PDO. The consortiums dictate strict regulations that are firmly enforced on how the product must be manufactured and producers that violate this rule are not allowed to use the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia brand names.

Acetaia San Giacomo

Acetaia San Giacomo is located in an old farm near the town of Novellara. The building is an excellent example of the rural architecture of northern Italy and specifically of the Pianura Padana south of the Po river. It is divided in two separate areas, one was originally dedicated to the living quarters (and the rooms on the top floor will soon be restored and ready to be rented by tourists and visitors), while the other side hosted the livestock and the hayloft. The two sections are connected by a tall porticoed area (the barchessa) where the ploughs and other farm machines used to be stored.

Now the lower floor of the living quarters has been turned into offices and into the Acetaia San Giacomo's store, the Bottega del Gatto M, hosted in the back room, which offers a number of high quality products from all over Italy and the wonderful Balsamico Tradizionale produced at San Giacomo. The other half of the building hosts the acetaia itself (where the Balsamico Tradizionale is made) which can be visited, and the shed where long tables wait for the guests who opt for having lunch at the acetaia.

The visit starts in the porticoed barchessa, where Andrea meets his guests and explains the early stages of the balsamico production (must and agro). Later on, the guests are invited upstairs where they can visit the heart of the acetaia, the large room filled with rows and stacks of barrels of decreasing sizes where the original agro turns into the mellow and rich Balsamico Tradizionale. The room is also furnished with an array of old tools, some of them still in use, that compose a sort of small museum; the rest of the farm is also dotted with restored old furniture.

Acetaia San Giacomo

In order to visit Acetaia San Giacomo you have to contact the acetaia (email address is on their website). The basic free visit includes the exploration of the acetaia and the description of the production process, but I suggest taking the more costly (only 25 Euro) option of also having lunch at the acetaia. Visits are available in Italian, English, French, and German (the latter requires a bit more time to be organized, though).

On arrival you will find a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano with a bottle of Balsamico Tradizionale waiting for you: just grab a bit of the cheese and carefully drizzle it with one or two drops of the rich liquid before eating it to discover the full potential of Balsamico Tradizionale.

After the visit at the acetaia, lunch will include erbazzone (a savory pie filled with a mixture of wild herbs), pumpkin tortelli garnished with butter and Balsamico Tradizionale (yet another way to savor it!), herbs and ricotta tortelli with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano, gnocco fritto (bread dough rolled in a thin sheet, cut in pieces and fried until crisp and fluffy at the same time) with prosciutto, salame and more Parmigiano Reggiano, wine and coffee (a very vegetarian-friendly meal as you can see: with the one exception of the cured meats all foods are vegetarian).

Acetaia San Giacomo

Lunch at Acetaia San Giacomo


Photos of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Process: Larger versions of photos.

www.acetobalsamicotradizionale.it: Consorzio Aceto Balsamico Reggio Emila for more information about Aceto Balsamico (Balsamic).

www.acetaiasangiacomo.com: Acetaia San Giacomo

Balsamic Vinegar in Chianti: A Balsamic producer in Tuscany

Written by Alice Twain. Alice is Italian and lives in Milan. Read her blog in Italian: A Typesetter's Day 3.0. See her Slow Travel Member page.

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