In Modena, searching out the best Balsamic, which sells on Amazon for $650 a bottle, I was expecting to arrive at a sterile factory. To my surprise, we visit a farm, with a few weathered barn-board buildings. We walk across the farmyard, avoiding contact with the region’s national birds, peacocks, pecking in the patches of grass. I don’t know the temperament of peacocks and I certainly don’t want to interrupt them at feeding time. We head for a two-story, weather-beaten wooden barn and climb up a staircase to the second floor of this shabby building.
There is an intriguing, aromatic scent in the room that is new to me: fresh, dry and fruity. In this room, a treasure trove of Balsamic is doing its natural thing. The grapes and must are placed in a large barrel, where mother nature naturally cools and heats the contents with the seasons. A window at each end allows for the breeze in summer, and the cold air in winter to nurture the elixir. After twenty-five years, the liquid is transferred to a smaller cask and allowed to age to fifty years old. The next cask is smaller, and the last cask, 100-year-old Balsamic has an opening on top that is covered with a white cloth. This thick elixir will be bottled in small crystal containers sculpted by an Italian artist, and sold to eagerly awaiting gourmets around the world.
I am lucky. I get an ambrosial taste from an eyedropper to a teaspoon. My celebrity companion does not, much to his chagrin. There’s a lot of fake “Aged Balsamic Vinegar from Modena” around. They tell me it can be made in about twelve minutes with a quick heating and chilling method. It sells for about $5-$6.
Pavarotti was born in Modena, and regularly took a spoonful of Balsamico before a concert to help keep his throat in shape. A nutritionist for the Canadian Olympic team has placed a sizeable order–using it as a natural seasoning for food for her prized athletes.
The vinegar manufacturing process passes from generation to generation, from wooden barrel to wooden barrel until it matures. Patience is key. Until at least forty years passes, the family of vinegar makers usually have day jobs.
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.