Real Balsamic Vinegar…at the acetaia

Among the many amazing things we did during our month in Italy (hard to believe it was more than a year ago) was meeting Laura and Deeana, the two women who operate Profumi Estensi, my balsamic vinegar supplier (and a special thanks to Leslie and Manual from Viridian for the connecting us). While we’d emailed for a few years, this was our first face-to-face, and both Judith and I felt it was a high point of the trip.

Not only did we really, really like Laura and Deanna (and their families, who fed us and showed us Modena), but we came away with a much better understanding of the amount of hard work, deep-seated knowledge, and just plain magic that goes into aceto balsamico.

Most of what’s sold as balsamic vinegar is just red wine vinegar sweetened with caramelized sugar and has no relation to the real stuff. But it’s cheap to make and generates nice profit margins for manufacturers willing to capitalize on gullible shoppers.

Real balsamic vinegar begins with the freshly pressed juice of Trebbiano grapes. The juice or must is cooked down to about 30% of its original volume, then it begins the slow fermentation process in a set of barrels made from different woods called a batteria. Each year, if the vinegar maker think it’s good enough, some of the vinegar from the last barrel in the batteria is removed. That barrel is topped up from the next oldest, and the process moves up the line with some of the newly reduced must going into the first barrel. A batteria may only yield a few liters of vinegar every year.

Profumi Estensi works with vinegar makers who produce balsamico on a very small scale, primarily for their family and friends. They’re willing to sell a little to offset their costs, which can reach hundreds of euros every year. We visited one and climbed the steep ladder up into the attic to see the acetaia (ah-che-taya or vinegar works). Hunched under the low ceiling, Judith and I followed Sergio as he flipped back the cloth squares covering the evaporation holes on the tops of the barrels, dipping spoons into the thick balsamico.

Only a handful of people ever get to see a family acetaia, and we felt incredibly privileged. Sergio inherited some of his barrels from his father, and he grew up learning how to mix vinegar from the different barrels in the batteria to get the complex flavor of true aceto balsamico. Watching him move among the barrels and seeing his eyes light up as he talked about the vinegar, we both wondered how he could bear to part with a single drop.