I once spent a night near Modena, Italy at an agriturismo, basically the Italian version of a B&B that’s on a farm. I got to talking with one of the owners and he asked what brought me to the area. I replied I was there to visit La Vecchia Dispensa, a balsamic vinegar maker. “Oh!” he exclaimed, excited. “You see that door? That goes to my attic. That’s where I keep my balsamico. Would you like to see?” He opened the door to reveal a small, cluttered room with a set of five small old wooden barrels filled with balsamic. “It’s nothing fancy like Vecchia Dispensa,” he told me, “but it’s enough for my family.” I had heard that people still make their own balsamic in their attics, but I didn’t really understand how standard it is it until I saw it. (As an aside, an attic filled with balsamic smells a lot better than an attic filled with mothballs.)
Balsamic has been made for family use for hundreds of years.
In fact, for most of its history, balsamic was made ONLY for the family. Every family around Modena would keep their own set of barrels in the attic to age with the seasons of the year. The balsamic was—and still is—an incredibly valuable family heirloom, like at the agriturismo. It was used primarily as medicine, not as salad dressing. If you had a stomach ache, grandma would prescribe a spoonful of balsamic. (Not bad, huh?) The Italian word balsamico comes from the same source as balsam in English: a resinous liquid with medicinal benefits.
Today, aspirin has replaced balsamic as the medicine of the day, but balsamic remains a family affair in Italy. The balsamic we get from La Vecchia Dispensa is made by the Tintori family. When I visited, Simone Tintori showed me around the acetaia—the space where the balsamic is made. His family has perhaps a dozen sets of balsamic barrels. A set is called a batteria and typically includes five barrels. As Simone explained it to me, each batteria is made by the grandfather when a new daughter is born into the family. The balsamic made in the barrels will become a part of her dowry, but they’ll remain with the family’s collection even after she is married. The dozen batterie in the Tintori family’s collection represent a dozen daughters over the last few generations.
Each batteria bears the name of the daughter who owns them. I saw Antonietta, Guendolina, Roberta. Many of the barrels are decades old. As we walked through the acetaia, Simone points out batterie belonging to his sister, his aunts, his grandmother. On the walls above the barrels were old black and white family photos. “The acetaia is our family pantheon,” Simone poetically explained.
The same barrels made for Simone’s grandmother when she was a toddler are still in use today.
In fact, they’re probably at their best now, having decades of use. When you put vinegar in a wooden barrel, the barrel doesn’t just flavor the vinegar. The vinegar also flavors the barrel. It’s an ongoing virtuous cycle, a vinegar-flavored barrel gives a different, more complex flavor to the vinegar than the brand new barrel did. A well-made barrel can be used for as long as a century before it falls apart.
It’s the barrels that give the balsamic most of its flavor.
To make traditional balsamic, you start with just one ingredient: grape must, the unattractively named fresh-pressed juice of grapes, skins, seeds, and stems. The grape must is cooked and reduced, then it goes straight into barrels. To start the aging process, it’s mixed with a little of last year’s balsamic, called the “mother,” which kicks off the transformation from must to vinegar. As it ages the balsamic will spend time in at least four different barrels or as many as a dozen. The barrels in a batteria are typically made from a variety of different woods including oak, acacia, cherry, juniper, and mulberry. By the time the balsamic is ready to sell, it will have spent time in each barrel in the batteria. Each type of wood contributes a different flavor. Older barrels add complexity and balance.
These days, most of the balsamic on the market doesn’t come from family pantheons.
About fifty years ago, balsamic makers starting producing a variation on their ancient, traditional product. If you see any balsamic for less than $100 a bottle, you can bet it’s this new version of the vinegar, which I’ll call “regular balsamic.” Regular balsamic isn’t always just made of must. It can have up to 80% wine vinegar which is cheaper than must but often has a harsher flavor. But perhaps the biggest difference is that unlike the traditional balsamics which age for at least a dozen years before they’re allowed to be sold, regular balsamic can be sold after just two months. That’s what happens with the thin, sweet, bland vinegar you find in most grocery stores today.
When choosing a balsamic, it’s always good to taste—if you can. When that’s not an option, check the ingredient list. If wine vinegar is listed first the flavor will be weak, and you’re likely to see caramel coloring added as well—too much wine vinegar dilutes the balsamic from the dark liquid we expect and caramel coloring is added to hide that. At Vecchia Dispensa, they use 70% grape must as the base of their regular balsamics and they never add any caramel coloring. But for my money, I’d say it’s how the balsamics are aged—and how long they’re aged—that makes the biggest difference. Vecchia Dispensa ages in good wooden barrels for years, and you can taste the complexity and balance they give. In Italy they used to put the age of the balsamic on the label (and that’s still how we do it at Zingerman’s), but the Italians recently switched over and started listing the density instead. If you find the density listed on the label, as the density gets higher the balsamic will be thicker and sweeter. Our six-year balsamic has a density of 1.18 and a bright, acidic flavor while our thirty-year balsamic has a density of 1.35 and a deeper, more raisiny flavor and a consistency closer to molasses.
Which balsamic for which use?
1. To whisk into a vinaigrette: pick a younger, brighter balsamic, like the 8 year
2. To drizzle over strawberries: go for an older, sweeter balsamic, like the 16 year
3. To reduce to a syrup: start with an older, thicker balsamic like the 30 year—it’s already so condensed and sweet from aging that there’s no reducing necessary
4. To marinate meat: try a balsamic with full-flavor but still some acidity, like the 10 year
5. To shake into a cocktail: choose a bright, acidic balsamic, like the 6 year
6. To finish a soup or braised dish: use a well-balanced balsamic, like the 10 year
7. To stun your guests: offer them a bit of Gold or Silver label traditional balsamic sprinkled on good Parmigiano Reggiano