Balsamic Lady Mariangela just flew from Modena to join us for a couple of days in San Francisco. Together, we converted the crowds to REAL Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, tasting after tasting. We were sponsors of the always inspiring Good Food Mercantile and there we sat down with Hannah Fordan of Heritage Radio for a deep insight in the balsamic world of Modena. Hannah asked us all the right questions, so the interview turned into a beautiful educational moment (with some tasting breaks!)
You can listen to the full interview here.
And here’s a transcript of our favorite parts of the interview.
Hannah: Mariangela, tell us a little bit about your family’s history of vinegar making in Modena. I know it’s a region well known for making balsamico. How long has your family been making balsamic vinegar?
Mariangela: The name of the company is La Ca Dal Nôn, which is dialect for ‘the house of the grandfather.’ In fact, it was my great grandfather who started the tradition of making vinegar in house. He started for the family, as everyone does in Modena. Because in Modena, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is really rooted in the culture of the city. Balsamico is the kind of product that, if you speak to someone coming from Modena, you will discover that everybody has at least three barrels in their loft, where they produce Traditional Balsamic Vinegar.
H: I know it’s a designated region for vinegar. Are there specific varietal of grapes that you prefer to use?
M: Yeah. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar – I’m always highlighting the word ‘traditional’ because there are two products on the market with the name balsamic linked to Modena. One is Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and the other one is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Despite they have almost the same name, they are two completely different products. We are producing the very very old traditional version, which is made only of cooked grape juice, coming from vineyards in Modena and surrounding region. And the grapes we use are Trebbiano Modenese, Sauvingnon, Lambrusco, Spergola, Pignoletto, Occhio di Gatta, that are the typical varietals of the area. They are harvested, as ripe as possible, they are pressed, and then the juice is cooked and aged.
Beatrice: And talking about the grapes, I want to point out that Mariangela’s products are made with grapes owned by the family, which is very rare. They are probably the only producers making Balsamico Tradizionale with their own grapes. And it makes all the difference, because you have the full cycle of the process under your control.
M: The main difference between Traditional and Balsamic of Modena is that Traditional is coming only from grape juice that is naturally fermented. Then that juice is transformed into vinegar through a very very slow process, that lasts for the younger product for a minimum of 12 years and for the product known as ‘extra aged’ for a minimum of 25 years. They are aged in a series of barrels of decreasing volume, through an aging method similar to the Solera method. So it’s blending with year renewal. On the contrary, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, the product that you mostly find on the market, is a blend of wine vinegar, cooked and concentrated grape must, and often caramel to stabilize the color of the product. In this case the origin of the ingredients is not required and the only step that has to happen in Modena is aging in a barrel of not definite volume for two months. So a very similar name for two completely different products.
B: And to make sure we understand the difference between the two products, I want to tell you that the production of Aceto Balsamico di Modena is 100 million litres per year, while Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, the one Mariangela makes, is 10,000 litres per year. That’s why the word tradizionale makes such a difference.
H: Yeah it’s something entirely different. I wanted to talk about the aging process, and what difference 12 years or 25 years can make in a product.
M: The aging process is peculiar, because we are talking about a product that is aged in series of barrels of decreasing volume, and these series of barrels are specifically called batteria. The batteria starts all at the same time. So when I want to start a series, I fill all the barrels at the same time with the same cooked must. Every year I will compensate the loss of liquid of the smaller barrel with part of the liquid of the second, the second with the third, the third with the fourth, and so on. Every year, once a year, I will put new cooked must in the biggest barrel of the line. Through this blending process with renewal every year, I transform the sweet and fruity cooked must into something that is long and syrupy in the mouth, with very high but balanced acidity, persistent. It will open and overwhelm your mouth with its taste. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is not a vinegar that you use to dress your salad. It’s something that you taste (like Beatrice is doing now!) directly on the spoon, sip it as an aperitivo.
B: Or you add to a fantastic steak, strawberries…
M: It’s very thick, but most importantly it has a body. When you put it in your mouth, it fills your mouth completely and you can feel it.
H: And this is the 25-years-old balsamico?
B: Yes. It’s really complex. It is so thick it hardly comes out of the bottle.
M: The most striking aspect of this product is the persistency, it stays in your mouth and it accompanies you for a long time. You can reach this persistency only through aging.
H: It is perfectly balanced between the sweetness and the acidity.
M: That’s it! The goal we are going for through aging is reaching the perfect balance between sweetness and sourness.
B: Historically it started as a digestif. It was only given to the aristocracy. It was an extremely rare product, as it is now actually.
M: We don’t know exactly when it was born, but the first written record about a very special vinegar produced in the area date back to 11th century. So it’s a product that has been developing throughout history for a very long time. And the scholars say that this product probably has originated from the habit of Ancient Romans of cooking grape juice to produce a sweetener called Saba.
B: The way of having this fantastic Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is pairing with Parmigiano Reggiano. And we have here a Gustiamo new entry, a very special cheese, Vacche Rosse Cheese.
M: I am very proud of this Vacche Rosse Cheese, as I know Luciano, the cheesemaker, very well, we are good friends. And he’s producing this very special cheese only with the milk of the red cows. That is the ancient breed originally used to make Parmigiano Reggiano.
H: So they evolve together!
M: Yes. This is a rare cheese, because the red cows are very few, if compared to the other breeds used to make Parmigiano Reggiano, that are much more productive. So the red cow has been abandoned little by little because it produces less milk, so it’s not good for industrial productions.
H: Right, as we have been talking about a lot here at the Good Food Mercantile, efficiency and high production don’t always make for the best product. Let’s taste this red cow cheese!
B: So this Vacche Rosse Cheese is aged for 24 months. Luciano, the producer, is also in charge of the whole cycle, he owns 200 cows. Each cow has a name, I love Rosina and Fiorellino! And they are all free range in Reggio Emilia.
H: It’s the perfect combination, this balance between salty, sweet, acidic.
M: The vinegar lowers down the fatty sensation of the milk and it enhances the flavor and body of the milk itself.
B: In addition to Tradizionale, Mariangela also makes less aged products.
M: The focus of my farm is using only one ingredient for the whole production: cooked grape must. We started producing Saba, the sweetener used by Ancient Romans. And from Saba we started a line of Balsamic Saba, so a younger line produced with cooked grape must and aged in one big barrel for 3 or 6 years. They have a good balance between acidity and sweetness and, for example, Balsamic Saba 3 is the perfect product for dressing a salad or steamed vegetables, chutneys.
H: I have to say one of the highlights of my summer was that I had the chance to put this on some grilled peaches and it was divine. So thank you for that!
So, this is Balsamic Saba 3, aged for three years. Let’s talk about the differences in flavor and mouthfeel.
M: This is much younger in taste. The acidity is actually less, but you feel it more lively in your mouth. It’s more fresh. It’s more unbalanced compared to the Tradizionale, meaning that you taste the sweetness first, then the acidity. And that’s normal for a product this young. It has a good body for this texture, but it’s shorter compared to the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. And of course it’s less intense and less persistent.
B: And of course less expensive!
M: Yes, these are more everyday products. These you can use them for dressing, cooking, preparations. While the Tradizionale, which is an incredible product, you can use on a spoon, on the Vacche Rosse Cheese, on ice cream… You can use it on many things, but always as a perfume. It comes at the end. It’s the final touch you give to your dishes, even the simplest ones. One of the things that we love the most is a soft boiled egg, open, a pinch of salt, and some drops of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. It’s delicious and it’s one of the simplest things you can do with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar.
H: Okay, that’s homework for everyone!