[ FOOD ]

A tiny bottle containing just 3 ounces of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale de Modena, as precious as a work of art, can sell for more than $100, depending on how long it has been aged.

The art of

It takes years to make
the sweet condiment
so esteemed in Italy

San Lorenzo, Italy >> Erika Barbieri was a young girl of 3 when she would secretly climb to the acetaia (attic) to dip her finger into the well-worn wooden barrels and taste the sweet liquid within. It wasn't until 16 years later that she admitted to her parents that this was part of her childhood routine.

Her mother said she wondered who had left the doors of the acetaia open; her father was pleased that his daughter would share his passion for one of Italy's finest food products.

Today, Barbieri is in charge of the generations-old family business, Acetaia del Cristo, producers of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, a much-esteemed product in the food traditions of Italy.

Balsamic vinegar has become a staple of American kitchens since it was introduced to the United States in the late 1970s. But there is a world of difference among balsamic vinegars and the kind the Barbieri family produces.

Aceto Balsamico de Modena -- balsamic vinegar of Modena -- is a designation for an "industrial" vinegar that allows for the addition of wine vinegar, caramel flavoring and caramel coloring to grape must, the skin and pulp of fresh grapes, which is the basis for balsamic vinegar. This is the supermarket variety, the kind to use in salad dressings or marinades or to drizzle over grilled vegetables and meats.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena -- traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena -- is a thick, sweet, syrupy condiment achieved through a long fermentation process in wood barrels. No other ingredients are added to achieve the flavor and consistency that only time can accomplish: a minimum of 12 years of aging or 25 years for extra vecchio or extra old. You might have to get a bank loan to buy 100 milliliters (or three fluid ounces) of traditional balsamico; it is used by the drop over foods at the table or served as a liqueur by the half-teaspoonful after a meal.

In between are products that are "industrial" but aged in wood, some for a year or two, some for longer. But these are not traditional balsamico.

Traditional balsamico begins with grapes: A variety of trebbiano and lambrusco grapes, black and white, is used by the Barbieri family. The grape must is simmered gently for up to 40 hours at an average temperature of 180 degrees in uncovered vats to allow for evaporation. The liquid is reduced considerably, to about one half of its original volume and is transferred to a cask to begin fermentation.

After several months in the cask, the reduced, partially fermented liquid is transferred into barrels of oak, chestnut, acacia, ash, cherry, juniper or mulberry for aging, each one imparting unique flavor and color qualities to the balsamico. The barrels have a rectangular opening allowing for visual inspection, easy access and contact with the air for evaporation. A piece of cloth covers the opening to keep any matter out. Barbieri points out that a few of the barrels are remnants from the 1850s, when her great-grandmother cared for production.

The barrels are grouped in a sequence of sizes and woods called a battery and are located in the attic of the family's old house, just under the roof, where the heat of summer and cold of winter allow for evaporation and settling of sediments, respectively.

In summer one can barely breathe in the attic: The fumes from the barrels full of aging balsamico fill the warm air of the cramped space. In a new building next door that houses a degustation (tasting) room and offices, the barrels of balsamico still rest in the upper floor, clearly with more air circulation but not without the attention to detail that is evident in the old attic.

The barrels are topped up during the winter months, the liquid having grown denser during the summer evaporative season. The liquid is drawn from the barrel with the oldest batch that will be bottled for sale. This barrel, with some liquid remaining, is topped up from the next barrel in the battery, to about three-fourths full. The second barrel is filled from the third, and the third from the fourth and so on. Into the last and largest barrel goes the aged must from the cask. This newer liquid evaporates and ferments and is topped up for at least 12 years, and up to 25 years or more.

Barbieri points out that from a hundred kilograms of grapes, or 220 pounds, 75 pounds of cooked must is placed into the first cask. After 25 years of aging and evaporation, just more than 2 quarts of balsamico results, labeled extra vecchio or extra old.

Acetaia del Cristo produces about 12,000 bottles of traditional balsamico a year, three-fourths of which is exported. Unique to their production is balsamico aged and flavored exclusively by juniper and cherry woods.

When it is time for bottling, the Barbieri family's expertise becomes evident, as with other producers of traditional balsamic. The Consorzio tra produttori dell'Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, or association of producers of traditional balsamic vinegar, founded in 1979, guarantees quality, checking production of each producer and sampling the product as it is bottled. Expert tasters grade the product for its visual, olfactory and gustatory characteristics. If a minimum score is not attained for 12-year or 25-year-old vinegar, it is returned to the producer for more aging. The Consorzio bottles the product in identical bottles and boxes for all producers, who then apply their individual labels.

"It is impossible to get identical balsamico from year to year," explained Barbieri. "If we take two new barrels of the same capacity and wood, fill them with the same product and put them together in the acetaia, a year later we will have two different products with different volumes, flavor and acidity. No one can tell you why, but this is the magic of traditional balsamico."

When the balsamico is drawn from the barrels for bottling, Barbieri still takes a fingerful, relishing its sweetness and density while her father frowns. "It helps me to taste and improve my understanding of balsamico," she explains to her father, exhibiting her never-ending passion for a unique food product and family business.

Acetaia del Cristo is available at R. Field at Foodland Beretania. Prices per 100 millileter bottle: juniper balsamico, $70.99; cherry balsamico, $99.99; extra vecchio balsamico, $150.

Using balsamico


>> As a wine vinegar with olive oil and seasonings for salad dressings

>> In marinades for beef, poultry and pork

>> Place in a saucepan, bring to a simmer and reduce to 1/3 or 1/2 with a little brown sugar for a denser, sweet vinegar that mimics traditional balsamico. Drizzle over grilled meats and vegetables or use as a decorative condiment


>> Drizzle over very good tomatoes and sprinkle with sea salt

>> Pour lightly over vanilla ice cream

>> Drizzle over a wedge of parmigiano reggiano

>> Relish a half-teaspoon after a meal, like a liqueur

>> Sprinkle over strawberries with a touch of sugar

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