Making the Tradizionale Balsamico di Modena

My love for the Italian artisans led me to my monthly blog being that many of them will soon be artisans of yesterday. When visiting them I am always sad to hear that youth may learn technique, but lack the passion of yesterday’s artisans. Alessandro Taccini, like his brothers, began making ceramics at age 12. The family bodega of 500 years may soon come to an end. Their children have learned the technique but they lack the passion to dedicate their life to this art.

Nino, one of the last copper artisans in Tuscany, learned his skills at age 12. Love and passion for his work, he claims, is why he continues to work at age 86. He speaks of his children who know technique but without passion he regrets will not continue this art when he is gone.

My mother at age 100 still can make pasta by hand as she did since the age of 8. She has taught me but I will never have the dexterity, speed, nor the love and passion to make it on a daily basis as she has done thought the decades. This too will become a lost art when mom and her peers are gone.

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I am happy to write this month about artisans whose passion for their work will continue as it has for 1000 years in Modena, in the Emilia Romagna gastronomical regional of Italy. Most families in Modena continue as did their ancestors the art of making the Traditionale Balsamico di Modena. TBM. On one of our last class visits we were introduced to a newborn, and told he would be the 7th generation making this medicinal product in their Modena family.

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This product should not be confused with the industrial made balsamic vinegar sold commercially. The similarity of these two products is only one. They are both made from grapes. The vinegar is made by fermenting grapes (wine made sour) and adding such additives as sugar, caramel, molasses or other unknown products to give it flavor and masquerade its color. It is not aged in wood barrels, and has become at times a substitute for soy sauce.

The authentic TBM condiment is made by cooking white trebbiano grapes in stainless steel or copper Calderon, with low heat, never boiled or burnt. The product becomes caramelized as it reduces to about 50%, rests for about 24 hours, and soon after starts its journey to becoming the reserved TBM, taking 12 or 25 years. The process involves placing the caramelized (saba) sweet and cool product into a batteria, a set of 5-7 working wooden barrels of different woods, of different sizes. Choice of woods depends on the maker, but popular woods are oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, and ash.

The biggest cask, usually oak, a hard wood, receives the new cooked must and begins the gradual acidification. The smallest cask is half emptied allowing the required annual refilling of cask from the biggest to the smallest barrel of different woods, giving off different flavors. To allow a little room for oxidation there is a small hole on the top of each barrel, the “bug”, which allows the saba to breathe and the maker to control the acidity.

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This process takes place in well ventilated lofts or attics in private homes in Modena (called Acetaia) that provide the required contrasting climates to make the finished product. Heat speeds up the evolution and the cold slows it down and stabilizes it. A small percentage does evaporate while aging. Gentle heat allows the yeast and microorganisms to survive. The gradual acidification in the barrels changes the product from amber in color to ebony. The time required changes the sweet must into a condensed exotic combination of sweet and sour flavors.

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After all these years, minimum of 12 to 25, to become classified as the Traditionale Balsamico di Modena, the finished product still must be tested and analyzed by a panel of expert judges before being allowed to be eligible to be put in the traditional, bulb-shaped like 3.5 ox bottle, recognized around the world as the reserved Traditionale Balsamico di Modena condiment. The 12 years product is recognized by its silver-white top and the 25 years by its gold colored top.Some acetaias may make a product in a minimum of 5 years, but they are recognized as a balsamic vinegar of Modena, therefore, to distinguish vinegars from the true balsamico one must look for the word traditionale balsamico di Modena with the DOC seal (denominazione, originale controllato) on the label. No two are alike due to differences in the production, use of woods and the skills of the maker. It is the only condiment in the world that is produced solely with the cooked grape musts with no additional additives.

Balsamic tasting class at Villa Lucia.

Balsamic tasting class at Villa Lucia.

Judges in Modena tasting and certifying the Balsamico.

Judges in Modena tasting and certifying the Balsamico.

It is only in Modena and Reggio Emilia where this product has been made through the centuries. It was first noted in 1046 as a product to alleviate childbirth pain followed by many other claims of medicinal cures. During the French Revolution it was auctioned off as a luxury item. In the 1800’s it was prized as a dowry for girls which is still practiced by many families in Modena today. It was Fini Federzoni of Modena that in 1912 made the first commercial product but still not that popular of an item. It was not until nouvelle cuisine in the 1980’s as chefs sought new flavors for the popular healthier cuisine that it became popular in the Western world. Today it can be used as a cordial, digestive drink and most popularly used by chefs of haute cuisine to use droplets of this expensive yet enriching flavor and taste to gourmet dishes.

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