Modena, city of fast cars, Unesco sites and balsamic vinegar

Modena is one of Italy’s wealthiest cities, with a rich cultural heritage. It is easily reached from Emilia Romagna’s food Meccas, Bologna and Parma, and its central cathedral, bell tower, Torre della Ghirlandina, and Piazza Grande have been Unesco World Heritage sites since  1997. It was the birthplace of tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and home to the legendary Ferrari, Lamborghini Maserati and Bugatti cars.

The central Mercato Albinelli, with its graceful Liberty-style fountain is an irresistible attraction, even to those who don’t cook, and in the last few years Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana has been declared the world’s top restaurant. It costs a king’s ransom to eat here, and the waiting list runs into months. On top of all this, it’s where the real, traditional Aceto Balsamico originated centuries ago, and where it’s lovingly protected and strictly defended.

Much of the balsamic vinegar used in salad dressing is made in factories with wine vinegar, colouring, caramel and occasionally a thickener like guar gum to imitate traditional aceto balsamico.  Traditional balsamic vinegar is expensive and would not work as a salad dressing. The sweet, thick liquid oozes from the bottle and is used to give a special flavour to the pan juices of a cooked dish. In Modena they say you should be frugal but not miserly, and a few expensive drops can transform a simple piece of grilled or fried meat. A roast chicken becomes sublime when anointed with balsamico as it comes out of the oven. You never cook with aceto balsamico.

How balsamic vinegar is made

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena starts with the white Trebbiano grape, grown in the hills around Modena, harvested as late as possible to produce maximum sweetness. The must is cooked slowly in an uncovered pan until it has reduced by about two thirds, and then stored in a large wooden cask, usually of oak, known as the madre. Eventually a batteria of casks will be arranged horizontally, in decreasing size, and stored in an area like an attic, exposed to summer heat and winter cold, to encourage evaporation of about 10% every year.

The choice of wood for the casks where the balsamico is aged depends on the Master Vinegar-Maker, but they usually start with oak. A typical order is Oak, Chestnut, Cherry, Ash and Mulberry but other woods can be used, such as Acacia, Walnut and Juniper. The Master Vinegar maker decides when to move the vinegar from cask to cask. There is a constant “topping up” throughout the year but the balsamico to be bottled is only drawn from the last cask. The process for aceto tradizionale must last at least 12 years and use at least 5 different woods.

One of the top panels in the barrel is left open for inspection and if you lean over and breathe the powerful fumes your head starts to swim. When Lucrezia Borgia was married to Alfonso d’Este she used the vinegar fumes to alleviate childbirth pains, and people thought it provided protection from the plague, although it was not until 1747 that it first became known as balsamico. It was regarded as a political tool and gifts were sent to powerful figures like Catherine the great of Russia and  Metternich.

Samples are taken to be judged by official tasters who have had to study for at least 4 years and tasted 40 vinegars every year. A Master Assagiatore has to have studied for 8 years and tasted 80 every year. In Modena the Consorzio samples many traditionally-made vinegars, but only those satisfying their strict standards can be bottled in the small, squat bottles made for specifically under patent in Murano. The consorzio guarantees that balsamico in their special bottles is at least 12 years old. The corks are sealed and covered with ivory foil  The ones marked Extra Vecchio contain balsamico at least 25 years old and they have gold foil. Each bottle is numbered so they can always be checked and traced.

When I first discovered balsamico in the late 80s it was still low key among the general public, but it was a religion in Modena. I remember being taken to lunch while I was doing food research in Modena, and my local host pointed out a man crossing the street, with the words :

“He may have a Henry Moore in his garden but he can’t  have his aceto in the Consorzio bottles.

Gourmet Adventures for 2017

Bologna and nearby Cities –      Full

Some spaces still available for :

Sifnos, Greece  –  June 17 – 24

Sicily –   October 1 – 9

Ciociaria – October 13 –  20


I will not be taking firm bookings until August but please let me know now if you are interested in one or two parts, as places are very limited. Priority will be given to returning visitors.



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