Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is a healthy balsamic vinegar from Modena or the wider Emilia Romagna region of Italy (Reggio Emilia). You can use it in cooking and balsamic dressings. The Italian name is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.
The first testimonies clearly speaking about “balsamic vinegar” appear as from the 19th century. They mainly refer to it as a healthy medicine as well as of recipes and making procedure,
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is like all balsamic vinegars produced from cooked grape must. This must contains no alcohol like the wine juice used for normal vinegar (including the ‘non-traditional’ balsamic vinegar – see below). After fermentation it ages at least 12 years. This is also the reason why the prices are higher.
Today, world’s cooks know it from its Italina name: ‘aceto balsamico tradizionale’. It is available to shoppers everywhere. It can sell for as much as US $200 for 100 ml. This makes traditional balsamic vinegars one of the most expensive foods in the world.
Protected Designation of Origin
Traditional balsamic vinegar is one of the most appreciated – and often imitated – products of Italian cuisine. The European Protected Designation of Origin system protects the product. Since 2000 there are two Protected Designation of Origin denominations for traditional balsamic vinegar:
- Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (ABTM); and
- Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia (ABTRE).
This is not the case for inexpensive “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”. BVM has lesser protection under the European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) system. This product consists of different proportions of wine vinegar (absolutely not present in ABT) and cooked must, usually industrial.
Traditionally, we use balsamic vinegar to dress salads and raw vegetables, but also to prepare sauces, gravies and marinades. It is a condiment for appetizers or in combination with typical cheeses such as Parmigiano. Even more exciting is its use as a garnish of special desserts based on ice cream or fresh fruit.
Why balsamic vinegar is healthy
A cup of balsamic vinegar (corresponding to 255 grams) provides 224 calories. It contains a total amount of carbohydrates equal to 43.4 grams of which 38.1 grams consist exclusively of sugars. The same amount of vinegar contains 1.2 grams of protein, and 195 grams of water.
Balsamic vinegar is rich in mineral salts. One cup of vinegar contains 286 mg of potassium, 68.9 mg of calcium, 30.6 mg of magnesium and 48.6 mg of phosphorus. In addition, small traces of iron, zinc, copper and manganese can be found.
Benefits of balsamic vinegar
In the Middle Ages in Italy people believed that balsamic vinegar was very healthy and could be a panacea for all ills; from common headaches to more serious ailments. So for a long time people considered this type of vinegar to be a real medicine rather than a food. However, only the nobles and rich merchants could afford to have balsamic vinegar.
In the past, people used balsamic vinegar also for its disinfectant properties as well as a food aroma; and for the preparation of preserves. Since it has antibacterial and antiviral properties people used it to disinfect wounds. Or to treat nail infections and skin problems such as acne.
Balsamic vinegar is healthy because it is rich in antioxidants due to its high concentration of polyphenols present in grapes. These chemicals play an important role in strengthening the immune system and fighting free radicals. The concentration of bioflavonoids promotes longevity, slows down aging processes and helps to live healthily.
Weight control and digestion
Balsamic vinegar is healthy, because it has the ability to increase the amount of time our body dedicates to the digestion of food. The idea is also that balsamic vinegar will prevent us eating too much. Balsamic vinegar helps digestion and maintains a correct body weight. It is a less caloric and less fatty condiment than other sauces, such as mayonnaise, and contains no cholesterol
Insulin control and other benefits
It seems that balsamic vinegar has interesting healthy properties in terms of improving blood sugar regulation. The polyphenols present in vinegar help enzymes to break down proteins into amino acids, thus helping metabolic processes. Balsamic vinegar is healthy since it reduces blood pressure and improves heart health. It promotes the absorption of calcium and magnesium. It has pain-relieving properties, especially in case of migraine.
Other health benefits of balsamic vinegar
Another reason why balsamic vinegar can be healthy is its high mineral salt content. It slows down gastric activity, without weighing it down, and increases the sense of satiety. It has important antibacterial and antiviral disinfectant properties.
Grape polyphenols make it an antioxidant food able to:
- strengthen the immune system,
- fight the harmful action of free radicals and
- slow down cellular aging.
Thanks to its limited caloric intake as a condiment it can also be useful for low calorie diets. It does not contain cholesterol, so it can also be consumed by people with cardiovascular problems.
The consumption of balsamic vinegar is generally not good for people suffering from diabetes, gastritis or gastro-oesophageal reflux. In some cases it could exacerbate the symptoms related to these disorders.
History of Balsamic Vinegar
Greeks and Romans
The art of cooking the must of grapes dates back to the ancient Romans.T he term balsamico derives from the Latin word “balsamum” and from the Greek word “βάλσαμον”. The words mean “restorative” or “curative”. So Romans already considered balsamic vinegar to be healthy. Therefore they used it as a medicine. In the kitchen they used it as a sweetener and condiment.
The ancient Romans, not having cane sugar (which the Genoese and Venetians introduced much later – in the 11th century), used to cook and reduce grape must in different concentrations. It is easy to imagine that very soon the Latins themselves saw products of the lowest concentrations fermenting, and later turning into vinegar ‘(acetifying’).
The monk Donizo of Canossa wrote a poem – Vita Mathildis – in the 12th century in the convent of Sant’Apollonio di Canossa about a precious vinegar in the area of Modena and Reggio Emilia. There is no mention of the word “balsamic”, however.
At the beginning of the 18th century the doctor and naturalist Antonio Vallisnieri noted that already in 1288, when Obizzo II d’Este begot the Seigniory of Modena, his court kept numerous barrels of vinegar.
Moreover, fragmentary sources from the Renaissance period hand down different classifications of the various types of vinegars present in the Estense Ducal Register (1556), and their use according to different needs and occasions.
There are records of this tradition of producing “very special” balsamic vinegar in a fairly small area was from 1508 at the court of the Duke of Modena, Alfonso I d’Este, husband of Lucrezia Borgia.
In 1518 the poet and playwright Ludovico Ariosto, born in Reggio and living in the Estense area, wrote in satire III addressed to his cousin Annibale Malaguzzi a hint of the culinary use of “acetto e sapa” as condiments in common use, thus also making an important literary reference to their traditional use in the Emilian area.
17th to 18th Century
The term “balsamic” next to the word vinegar appears for the first time in 1700, as reported in the register of vintages and sales of wines on behalf of the Ducal secret cellars for the year 1747 (State Archives, Modena).
Members of the European aristocracy already knew this fine product, thanks to the Dukes of Modena and Reggio. Documents and manuscripts from the 16th century and the year 1796 refer to the well-matured musts used for the production of balsamic vinegar “alla modenese” and the battery of 36 barrels kept in the third tower of the ducal palace towards S. Domenico.
It is interesting to note that from these first memories two fundamental constants appear continuously for the production of “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar:
- the cooked must obtained from the typical grapes as a basic product and
- the location of the production rooms in high rooms, usually in attic rooms.
In that period the first testimonies (letters, wills, donations) talk about balsamic vinegar in the strict sense of the word, and as we understand it today.
In this context of economic and political changes, the possession of jars and batteries of balsamic vinegar was immediately perceived as a sign of social ascent. Even among the bourgeoisie, as it had been used by aristocratic families, it became a good rule to add some valuable vases with balsamic vinegar to the dowry of the woman about to get married.
19the century: “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar”
Thus began the first diffusion of knowledge about “balsamic vinegar”, and in September 1839 Count Giorgio Gallesio from Savona wrote with admiration about the production techniques he had observed in the Acetaia of the Counts Salimbeni of Nonantola. On 4 May 1860, Vittorio Emanuele II, visiting the city following the plebiscite, ordered the transfer of the ducal vinegar cellar to the castle of Moncalieri where neglect and lack of knowledge of the product led to its dispersion.
The first and most detailed codification of the techniques and recipes for the production of balsamic vinegar dates back to 1862, when Francesco Aggazzotti wrote a letter to his friend Pio Fabriani in which he described the secrets of his family’s vinegar cellar. In 1863 the first scientific study was carried out, thanks to the analysis conducted with modern techniques (of the time) by the chemist Fausto Sestini, who highlighted the considerable differences between this vinegar and any other type.
From that date on, the testimonies related to this production became thicker and more official thanks to the commercial diffusion: agricultural exhibition 1863 in Modena, exhibition in Emilia in Bologna in 1888, printed leaflets of the time in which it is stated that balsamic vinegar is a specialty of Modena, produced from selected grapes. In conclusion, these testimonies confirm that in the province of Modena, since time immemorial, a particular type of vinegar has been produced, unknown in other areas, with production and ageing characteristics that have remained virtually unchanged up to the present day and which have been incorporated and objectified in the production regulations for “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”.
Since 2001, traditional balsamic vinegar has been protected by the Protected Designation of Origin. The grape must is fermented, acetified and then aged for at least 12 years to obtain the real traditional balsamic vinegar. The highest quality vinegar can be characterized by an aging of 25 years. We can also easily find on sale the “non-traditional” balsamic vinegar of Modena, to which the PGI is recognized.
Production and price
The adjective “balsamic” today designates any kind of generically aromatic vinegar and products not just obtained from the fermentation of grape must alone. Like in ‘balsamic salads’.
The transformation process of the must can only take place in the particular environmental and climatic conditions typical of the attics of old houses and only in the territory of the two Emilian provinces, characterized by cold winters and hot and windy summers. For these reasons it cannot be obtained by industrial or large-scale processing, so its production is very limited and its price rather high.
The entire ABT production process begins with the pressing of the grapes and ends with the taste-olfactory evaluation of the aged product. The production steps are well determined, from the cooking of the grape must to the alcoholic fermentation, from the acetic bio-oxidation by acetobacteria to the slow ageing in wooden barrels
The basic ingredient is cooked grape must. The grapes used are Trebbiani, Lambrusco (in all their varieties), Ancellotta, Sauvignon, Sgavetta, Berzemino, Occhio di Gatta and in general the grapes from the vineyards registered for the DOC of the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The maximum yield of grapes allowed is limited to 160 quintals/hectare.
The grapes must necessarily be grown in the provincial territories of reference, characterized by a slight limestone content and the presence of macro and micro elements. The entire production process must also take place within the same geographical area, characterized by cold winters and very hot summers, which make possible the unique and particular processes necessary for the proper development of the product.
Cooking, fermentation and maturation of grape must
The grape, free of any additive, is cooked at natural pressure, over direct heat and in open containers for about 12-24 hours at a minimum temperature of 30 °C, until the total mass is reduced to about 2/3.
The fermentation of sugars, in the presence of not too high sugar concentrations, is immediately grafted and continues during the winter months.
In the barrels begins the chemical process of “maturation” of the product, thanks to the acetobacteria, referred to as “balsamic”.
Acetic bacteria produce a wide range of compounds in addition to acetic acid, such as acid sugars, cellulose and many volatile compounds, often different according to the species they belong to. Ultimately, the chemical composition of ABT is highly variable and depends on various factors, such as the type of must, the cooking method, the fermentation and oxidation temperature, and others.
Maturation and ageing
Once fermented and acetified, the product begins the maturation and aging phase, two phases characterized by the effect of enzymes dispersed in the liquid.
In addition to this, during the years of maturation and ageing, traditional balsamic vinegar undergoes a continuous concentration, due to the loss of water volume through evaporation. Generally the “annual decrease” is 8-15% for the larger barrels, called “head”, increasing up to 12-25% for the smaller barrels (“tail”).
Ageing is primarily related to the time the vinegar spends inside the various barrels (the so-called “battery”) defined as “age” or “residence time”, but also to all the time-dependent changes in the chemical, physical and sensory properties of traditional balsamic vinegar (“physical maturation time”).
The maturation phase lasts approximately 10 years: added to the approximately 2 years required for fermentation and acetification of the initial product, this justifies the 12 years required as a minimum requirement for the definition of ABT. The 25 years required for the extra old product are instead arbitrarily defined, since the processes have practically no end and can last continuously for centuries.
The wood guarantees exchanges with the external environment not only through the opening bunch, but also through its porosity, during all phases of the life of traditional balsamic vinegar. The battery must necessarily be placed in a place that is affected by temperature changes between day and night, but even more so between summer and winter: the acetification process, in fact, requires an ambient temperature above 20-22 °C, below which the acetobacteria remain in a dormant state.
In order to allow these continuous exchanges of oxygen, water vapor and volatile substances, it is essential that ABT is stored and aged in substantially open containers: the availability of barrels for the transport of wine to the isolated country taverns (generally of modest capacity), and the accumulation of a wealth of experience and traditions, has probably led to the use of small wooden barrels for the maturation and preservation of the product, instead of other forms of containers.
Conversely, the winter cold is necessary to slow down the evaporative process and to let the mucilaginous substances and the corpuscles of the liquid settle on the bottom, as well as to ensure a strong activity of the odorous parts. And in fact, even today the barrels are still placed in the attics of the houses, so as to expose the aging vinegar to both the harsh winters and the sultry summers of Emilia. The large vinegar cellars, with dozens if not hundreds of batteries, are often located in old adapted barns, or in modern sheds specifically designed to ensure the effect of the seasons.
The “battery” of barrels consists of an odd number of wooden barrels of more than five and of different capacities, arranged in descending order. There is no clear and unambiguous explanation as to why the barrels should be odd in number, but this is how an old and still respected local tradition has always wanted it. The number equal to or greater than five is clearly identifiable in the need to diversify the wood and increase the remaining time of the product in battery. The typical barrels of Modena and Reggio Emilia are similar in size to the caratello, but more stocky and less elongated.
Each barrel has a generally rectangular opening on two or three staves, called “cocchiume”. This facilitates inspection and maintenance operations, as well as oxygenation and evaporation of the product. In order to allow the maturation of the product and the continuous action of the acetobacteria, the barrels are not sealed, but covered only by a rag, leaving the acetobacteria free to exchange oxygen with the surrounding environment. The air that slowly filters through the fibres and porosity of the wood also participates actively in the maturation and ageing phases and therefore in the fundamental exchanges of oxygen.
Finally, the preservation of the product in open wooden barrels also allows its progressive concentration, following the annual evaporation of a significant quantity of the watery fraction, together with the dispersion of other volatile substances.
Storage in attic
The barrels are not stored in the cellar, but generally in attics, preferably not insulated. The vinegar attic is the perfect place for the maturation of traditional balsamic vinegar, which requires a wide temperature range between winter and summer. In the hot season, thanks to the high temperatures (in the vinegar cellar it can reach 40 °C) there is the greatest bacterial activity and also the greatest evaporation, while in winter the bacterial activity slows down and the product sediments all the impurities at the bottom of the barrel. Every year part of the contents of each barrel is decanted into the smallest barrel immediately adjacent, according to a precise sequence, until a very concentrated product is obtained in the last barrel.
The product’s production specifications require the use of fine woods from the area of origin (i.e. the ancient Este domains) for the barrels. Each producer, following the rules of the Disciplinary, chooses at will more or less aromatic woods for his barrels
The process differs from acetaia to acetaia and is often the result of experiences handed down over the centuries by families of producers, who give each vinegar peculiar characteristics.
Age and yield
Each barrel therefore contains a mixture of vinegars of different ages and characteristics – the organoleptic properties vary each year depending on the grapes, the cooking and the seasons, and therefore “the age” of the vinegar can be considered as the average time the product remains in the battery compared – weighted – to the different quantities of vinegar introduced over the years. It has long been debated how to calculate the real “age” of the product, also in consideration of the fact that the specifications set a minimum aging period of 12 years from the start of a new battery: obviously at the end of the twelfth year, only a fraction of the product contained in the smallest barrel dates back to the vinegar introduced twelve years earlier, while a large part of the content is the result of the successive increases and decanting
Similar products and imitations
On the market there are many products, condiments and vinegars that qualify as “balsamic”, or that use more or less exactly this term.
Excluding Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI, which has a different production specification that regulates its protection but still requires it to be produced in the province of Modena or Reggio Emilia, these are often sauces and condiments with production and organoleptic characteristics that are difficult to compare with the PDO product, since this category may include both by-products or re-working based on wine vinegar, rice, apple or other vinegar with the addition of sweeteners, and real traditional balsamic vinegars which, however, have not undergone the complex (and costly) certification procedure to use the PDO mark. In the latter case, these products can only be obtained locally, and only after careful knowledge and evaluation of the individual producer.
Other times, especially outside the Italian borders, these are real imitations that exploit the generic name of the product even though they do not have the production and chemical-physical characteristics. In Modena, at the headquarters of the Consorzi di tutela dell’ABTM and ABM, a room has been opened dedicated to a growing collection of imitations from various European countries and beyond.
Main source: Wikipedia