What is the most expensive food you can think of? Saffron? Caviar? Truffles??
In the Italian city of Modena (MOE deh neh), there is a local product that sells for as much as $60 PER OUNCE, the equivalent of $7,680 for a full gallon!
We’re speaking of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P. and it makes a wonderful head-turning gift for your favorite foodie.
D.O.P. stands for Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin) and, while “Balsamic Vinegar” is quite affordable and readily available, most of the world’s population has never tasted this rarity. A true D.O.P. Balsamic vinegar requires at least 12 years to produce!
Producing a D.O.P. Balsamic Vinegar
- The long process begins each Fall with the harvest of six specific grape varieties grown in a designated area around Modena.
- After pressing, the grape juice (called must) is left to simmer for many hours. This concentrates the must and caramelizes the sugars. The taste is intense and fruity, but it is not yet vinegar!
- The concentrated must is moved into large tanks called “badessa”, meaning mother barrel, where it begins fermentation and awaits its gradual transfer into the battery of barrels stored in the Acetaia (the vinegar loft).
- The Acetaia has no temperature control because seasonal variation, from winter’s freezing cold to summer’s intense heat, is essential to the process.
- An Acetaia contains many ‘batteria’ – a series of five or seven casks of different woods (image at right), arranged in decreasing size and, importantly, left open to allow for air exchange and evaporation. It’s not uncommon for a barrel to have been deployed constantly for over 100 years.
- Evaporation (and periodic withdrawals for bottling) reduce the level in each barrel, so a regular process of refilling is required. This begins with the smallest barrel (containing the oldest vinegar) using vinegar from the next-smallest barrel. This leaves that second barrel depleted by its own evaporation plus the amount used to fill the small barrel. That volume is replaced using the vinegar from the next barrel up, and so on until the largest barrel is filled using the young vinegar from the “badessa”. This is the ONLY ingredient allowed to be introduced into the Battery.
When it comes time for bottling, vinegar is withdrawn from the smallest barrel in the battery. This is the oldest vinegar – thick and syrupy by now – and the only one that gets bottled. At this stage, the vinegar has been aged for a minimum of twelve years (called Affinato) and up to twenty-five years (Extravecchio).
- Finally, the vinegar is submitted for evaluation by the D.O.P. Consortium. If found acceptable, the vinegar is bottled by the Consortium (NOT the producer) in the iconic bottle created by Italian designer, Giugiaro. Inspired by the baster-like bulb used to extract vinegar from the barrels, the bottle contains a unique serial number for each bottling. Any ‘Balsamic’ product not sold in this unique bottle is either Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (still too good to be used for cooking but half the price) or a simple salad dressing Balsamic that sells for under $20 and is intended for cooking, reductions and salad dressings.
The proper technique for tasting Balsamico involves the use of a non-metal spoon (mother of pearl is traditional, though plastic tasting spoons suffice quite well). A drop or two of vinegar are placed on the spoon then licked off of it. The tongue is then placed against the roof of the mouth and held in place while breathing with the mouth open. This tasing technique allows the Balsamico’s natural acidity to express itself, revealing nuances of aromas and flavors obtainable in no other way.
Because the flavors are so concentrated and powerful, only a small drizzle is sufficient for most uses. As a result, a single bottle of Balsamico di Modena DOP will last most home chefs about a year. Classic pairings include everything from cocktails to roast meats to fresh strawberries and even vanilla ice cream.
Quite a process, right? Now you can see why the Balsamic Vinegars of Modena D.O.P. – The ‘Black Gold of Modena’ – command a small fortune and are used by the world’s best chefs. To find one for yourself or as a gift, look for them on the shelves of the world’s top specialty food stores like Farmstead Cheeses & Wines.