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Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale: A Family Affair

Oil and balsamic vinegar have become a staple in our home. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, that is, which is very, very different from Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is known around the world as black gold and I was kindly invited into the home of Marisa Barbieri Giuliani near the center of Modena to learn more about it. One spoonful of the sweet, gooey vinegar Marisa and her daughter, Franca, are producing in their attic and there’s a new kind of balsamic that will be a staple on my pantry shelves.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena

But I digress. Back to my visit, because I know you’ll all find what I learned just as fascinating as I did! The process of making Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena has long been a secret. The tradition of making balsamic vinegar originated in family attics in Modena where the Italians would put Trebbiano and sometimes Lambrusco grapes that were too poor for wine making to another use. The tiny bottles of the vinegar were often given to family and friends as Christmas gifts, Franca explained as she led me up the stairs to the attic in her family home.

She’s the third generation of her family making Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and she learned all she knows from her mother, Marisa Barbieri. Marisa in an expert and the walls are covered with diplomas and accolades attesting the high quality of her traditional balsamic. She was even one of the first 35 traditional balsamic vinegar master tasters.

Each family has their own secret recipe and I certainly wouldn’t be learning that, but Franca explained that the freshly harvested grapes are de-stemmed and crushed to release the juice and sugars. Once the skins and pulp have been filtered out, the grape “must” is then boiled in copper vats. After anywhere from 12 hours to more than a day, the must is reduced to about half its original volume and ready to begin the process of acetification and aging in a set of barrels, called a “battery of barrels”.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di ModenaThe traditional balsamic vinegar begins its aging process in the largest barrel of the set. About once per year, just a little is removed from the barrel and transferred to the next barrel in the set. It is moved from barrel to barrel until it reaches the smallest one. Each barrel is made from a different type of wood and infuses its flavors into the balsamic. The technique takes at least 25 years to get a really good Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, Franca tells me.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di ModenaShe then proudly shows me sets of wooden barrels handed down through her family, the syrup-y balsamic oozing from some of them as they expand and contract from the changes in weather. She and each of her four brothers and sisters each inherited a set of the wooden barrels and she started three more sets that her own three children will someday inherit. A smile comes across Franca’s face as she recalls seeing her grandfather carrying the traditional balsamic vinegar in buckets when she was just a small child.

There are only about 100 families that are licensed to make the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Franca explains it can only be labeled as such after it has passed a rigorous test of the certification council, which was established in the 1970s to keep imitators from trying to sell commercial grade as traditional. She shows me the two types of packaging: beige packaging indicates that the traditional balsamic is at least 12 years old and brown packaging indicates at least 25 years old. Even a specific bottle must be used for packaging and has a special wax seal of authenticity.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena

Franca proudly shows me a bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar

Finally, Franca explains how to enjoy Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Drizzle just a few drops on Parmesan for a delicious snack or drizzle it over gelato, she tells me. “No matter how you use it though, it is meant to be enjoyed,” she explains as she sends me on my way with a recipe book and my new bottle of 12 year traditional balsamic vinegar.

Know Before You Go

  • You can visit the Acetaia Marisa Barbieri Giuliani by appointment. Call +39 059 305713 to make an appointment.
  • At least 12 year Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is €40 and at least 25 year is €70. Try to bring exact cash.

For more foodie travel inspiration, check out Foodie Tuesday on Inside Journeys.

My visit to Acetaia Marisa Barbieri Giuliani was arranged in collaboration with the Emilia-Romagna Tourism Board as part of the #BlogVille campaign created by iAmbassador. As always, my thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely my own.

Jennifer Dombrowski

Jennifer Dombrowski is a location independent globe trotter who is based in Prata di Pordenone, Italy. She works as a social media and communications strategist and is an award-winning travel writer. She is also a travel correspondent on Traveling on the American Forces Radio Network. Jdomb's Travels was named one of the top travel blogs to watch by the Huffington Post and has been featured by top publications such as CNN, Buzzfeed , and The Telegraph. Her iPhoneograpy has also been featured on publications such as USA Today and Travel + Leisure. Google+

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13 comments

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  1. Devlin @ Marginal Boundaries

    I love when countries make certifications like this, much like A.O.C. in France. It really helps keep the quality of products up. In a world where you can get anything under-the-sun at your local big box store it’s nice to see old traditions are still alive and well and being regulated.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Indeed! I’ve always heard there was a huge difference between balsamic from the store vs traditional balsamic. Now that I’ve had the traditional, I can easily see why the quality needs to be regulated. Some commercial manufacturers even just use caramel coloring and artificial ingredients!

    [Reply]

  2. Randy Kalp

    It’s probably a good thing I don’t live anywhere close to Modena. If I did I’d probably spend most of my days bouncing from one balsamic vinegar tour to the next. :)

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Right?! Unlike wineries though, I think the balsamic makers can be tough to locate without insider info. I wasn’t expecting to visit someone’s home! I could have walked right by on that street and never noticed had I not been looking for a specific address. Makes it sort of feel like a secret society. :)

    [Reply]

  3. Muza-chan

    Interesting article…

    [Reply]

  4. Mike

    This was fantastic as I’ve been using balsamic vinegar more frequently in recipes this past year, Jennifer. I always enjoy posts like this that show the background and process of what it takes to have an amazing cooking ingredient come flowing out of the bottle I use at home. Granted I’ve not used Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena which I can only imagine is out of this world good! Great post again! :)

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks, Mike! I’m not sure I’d use traditional balsamic in everyday cooking. It’s like a fine wine, so meant to be enjoyed but in special ways. I had some drizzled over Stravecchio, a cheese that is cousin to Parmesan. Delicious!

    [Reply]

  5. Ellen Christian

    How interesting. I had no idea. Now I’ll know more the next time I buy some!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I’ll be curious to look at a specialty shop to see if I can find traditional balsamic the next time I’m in the US. I imagine it would be quite expensive there if any is exported.

    [Reply]

  6. Ali

    I never realized how much goes into vinegar until Andy and I did something similar a few months ago in Modena. Definitely some amazing tastes in each variety.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I didn’t either. It’s just like aging a fine wine, really.

    [Reply]

  7. Marcia

    I’ll never look at balsamic vinegar the same way after this.
    I had no idea so much went into making it. It’s like a fine wine or champagne and costs almost as much. Just checked online – a bottle costs $160 on Amazon! I’d still love to try it, maybe on gelato, as Franca suggested.

    Thanks for linking up this week, Jennifer!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    OMG! I’ve never looked up what one cost online. I should have stocked up because I got a great deal!

    [Reply]

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