Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is an ancient condiment that was used as far back as Roman times and has little more than the name in common with the Balsamic Vinegar found on the table of Italian restaurants around the world.
There are very stringent rules surrounding the production of ‘Traditional Balsamic Vinegar’, rules that are far more lax for the production of commercial Balsamic Vinegar, and it all starts from the must. Must is essentially the freshly crushed juice of grapes (Trebbiano and Lambrusco in this case), including skins, stems and all. Must was widely used as a sweetener in roman and pre-roman times (sugarcane wasn’t traded before the 1500s), and was also used as the base ingredient to transform mustard seeds in to mustard. In the region around Modena the art of ageing and concentrating became the precursor to what is now Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. Like mustard (and there are wonderful fruit based mustards in the north of Italy), it is used as an accompaniment to festive foods, such as bollito (boiled meats, often eaten at Christmas and other celebrations). It was (and is, given the cost) something to be taken out of the attic to mark a special occasion.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is made by fermenting the cooked grape must in wooden barrels. 8 different types of wood can be used, but it’s obligatory to use 5 different ones (presumably because this enhances the complexity). These barrels live in a dry section of the house – the attic – rather than the humid cellar. And unlike most wines, oxygenation is encouraged during fermentation and the process of must concentration. Aged for a minimum of either 12 or 25 years (depending on the quality), the must is moved from bigger to smaller barrels, absorbing the qualities of the different types of wood over time. At a recent tasting of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar at Acetaia Valeri, we tasted one that was finished in juniper wood, giving a incredible contrast between the sweetness of the must and the high notes of juniper, something that would have been wonderful as an accompaniment to game. The different styles lend themselves to different food matches and it’s all down to the inventiveness of the maestro acetaio.
So highly was it valued (and still is) in the Modena region that families would give a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar set (barrels and all) as part of the dowry. It remained a very local tradition and an important contributor to peasant livelihoods in the area for centuries, until in the 70s and 80s, when the phenomena grew beyond its borders and the commercially available styles were made for much less and in far greater quantities. Aceto Balsamico Tradizione was like wine, cheese, cured ham and vegetables, just another product that a farm or small-holding would make, generation after generation across the centuries – millennia even.