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Reggio Emilia

The World of Balsamic

ImageThe families of Reggio Emilia have always been very proud of their production of balsamic vinegar, and to have a set of barrels in the attic is a seal of ancient family traditions, if not a confirmation of noble family roots. The same production technique by successive transfer from one barrel to another means that, in the smallest barrel, where mature traditional balsamic vinegar is taken from, there is still a small quantity which could almost belong to a previous generation. Some families have barrel sets which were started off more than one hundred years ago, and some can even be found starting from the 18th century. It is not therefore by chance that, for centuries, in and around Reggio Emilia, balsamic vinegar barrels have been inherited in wills on a par with gold sovereigns and the other most precious family objects. Traditional balsamic vinegar, as the name itself states, is therefore to be considered a bridge between generations, and an indelible sign of belonging among the people of the Enza, Crostolo, Tresinaro and Secchia valleys.

Smell and taste

This vinegar-not-vinegar, the fruit of a long and learned ageing process of sugared grape must in precious wooden barrels, permits you to enter the fascinating world of olfaction. Of the five senses, this is the least known and yet it is the true power house - as sommeliers and unrepentant gastronomes well know - of the strongest sensorial experiences; of memory and emotions linked to food.

Perfume and taste mix in a harmonious manner as they meet traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia. Its subtle, but never overbearing, olfactory presence makes every sweet or savoury recipe more precious, brings a roundness to flavours, heightens the senses and stimulates the mind.

Balsamic at the Table

It is interesting to take a look at how to make the most of this wonderful Emilian culinary gem in the kitchen. It could be used with the most refined products, such as caviar, truffles or duck livers, even though balsamic vinegar also has its own ?history? and at the same time is a product of nature and a product of Italian culture.

Balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia is an extraordinary complement to food. That mature, dark brown, dense, clear and shiny liquid is an experience for the palate, a triumph of a sweet and sour harmony of flavour and secondary tastes mixed with the other flavours within a dish. Apart from these elements of the identikit of this unique and incomparable vinegar, a little time should also be dedicated to the use of balsamic vinegar in the kitchen. While this vinegar was used in olden times for its medicinal and healing properties, today its consumption is linked far more tightly to quality cooking and to the enrichment of highly prestigious dishes. The uses which were passed down from the Duke of Este?s estate point us more in the direction of refined cookery, while the more frequent use today is to give flavour and body to more simple meat or vegetable dishes. Traditional balsamic vinegar can be used neat to dress salads and crudities, on flakes of Parmigiano-Reggiano or on a slice of Parma ham.

It can be used in cooking, to liven up mayonnaise, creams, pastes, or can be added to cooking dishes to give a perfumed richness to the sauces. It marries perfectly with all red meats, with game or with white, while still being just right for sea food salads or boiled fish.

There is just one handy hint: it should be added to cooked food only at the end of cooking, so as not to lose its aroma and volatile bouquet. Desserts made with balsamic vinegar are a delicacy in this area; just a few drops of balsamic vinegar on a creamy vanilla ice-cream make all the difference. Balsamic vinegar is therefore an exceptional dressing, which due to its flexibility can be put to an infinite number of uses. Just a few drops are needed; it should be used carefully in such a way as to heighten, rather than cover, the other flavours.

True gourmets can recognise the individual characteristics of each traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia according to the ageing process and the type of wood in which it has been kept over the years. Some balsamic vinegars have a more rounded flavour, others a more robust acidity; others again the aroma of the wood of the barrel. Raw vegetables prefer a balsamic vinegar with a pronounced acidic flavour, while cooked food served hot requires a more mature balsamic which is able to set loose its fragrant and full bodied characteristics.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

It should be noted that the products available as ?vinegar? on the market have widely different characteristics:

  • Wine vinegar is the straightforward product obtained from the acetification of wines, with total acidity of at least 6% millilitres and an alcohol content not exceeding 1.5%.
  • Reggio Emilia and Modena Traditional Balsamic Vinegar are classified as ?food seasonings?, made from concentrated grape musts, and are the outcome of traditional production methods requiring special skills and ageing in barrels for at least 12 years.
  • Modena Balsamic Vinegar is produced industrially or semi-industrially, and is obtained by blending concentrated musts and vinegars aged for a few months in wooden casks.

ImageBalsamic vinegar takes its name from the word ?balsamic? meaning ?health giving?. It is a traditional product from Modena, produced on an artisanal basis and vastly superior to any factory balsamic vinegar. Before any balsamic vinegar can be sold under the traditional label of authenticity, it is sampled blind by members of the guild of balsamic vinegar makers.

Balsamic vinegar is produced from the must from specially cultivated varieties of grape, which is then simmered slowly to half or a third of its volume. After a year of fermentation and acidification, it is decanted into barrels of ever diminishing size, each made from a different wood, which itself adds to the aroma of the slowly concentrating balsamic vinegar.

History of Balsamic Vinegar

There are very few cases like traditional balsamic vinegar, where its history is ?the product?. In fact, this fruit of the intelligence and the passion of men has honoured and characterised the most fortunate and most knowledgeable tables for many centuries.
Its ancient roots are for the most part unknown, and surround the ?most special vinegar in the world? with a veil of mystery, about where the idea and the production techniques came from, the beginning of the modus operandi passed down through the generations from father to son, which today we call ?know-how?.

The earliest ancient writings which mention it date back to the year 1046, when the Emperor of Germany, Henry II, travelling to Rome for the coronation, stopped in Piacenza. From here he wrote to Boniface, Marquis of Tuscany and father of the famous Countess Matilde of Canossa, asking for a gift of a special vinegar which he had heard ?flows in the most perfect manner?. Within the very walls of the castle which was to become very famous a few years later for the pardon meeting between Pope Gregory VII and the Emperor Henry IV, the story goes that a vinegar was made, elixir and balsam, which was craved desperately by the royalty. These historic facts are told in the poem ?Vita Mathildis?, written by the monk Donizone, who was the main biographer of the Great Countess Matilde. In the XII, XIII and XIV centuries, we know for sure that, in Reggio Emilia, Scandiano and in the other main towns of the territory, vinegar producers formed real consortium-type groups in which all members jealously guarded the secrets of this most precious production.

Renaissance Period
After the imperial imprimatur, during the whole Renaissance period, balsamic vinegar often appeared on the tables of the kings and the nobility, particularly at the table of the Dukes of Este. When Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara, came to reign in 1476, the history of balsamic vinegar received a decisive boost. The whole of the ruling dynasty in the duchies of Modena, Reggio Emilia and Massa, across the centuries up until 1859, enriched the accounts of the history of traditional balsamic vinegar. Lodovico Ariosto, not by chance from Reggio Emilia, writes in the third of his Satires dedicated to his cousin Annibale Malaguzzi, ?at my house I?d rather have a turnip to cook, and cooked on a stick I take and mash and spread with a little vinegar and must?. In 1863, in a publication by Fausto Sestini, we can clearly read that ?in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia since ancient times a very special quality of vinegar has been prepared, whose appearance and excellent aroma led them to call it Balsamic Vinegar?.

The testimonies of Balsamic Vinegar become more frequent in the 1800?s, particularly in the dowry lists of the noble families from Reggio Emilia. At that time it was in fact customary to enrich the dowry of the noble women who were to be married with jars of precious balsamic vinegar and sets of little barrels with the same precious content. The rest is a history of our times.

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© 2019 Jeff Heselwood. All rights reserved.
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