The Story of the Real Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena at Acetaia Pedroni, Emilia Romagna
In a small town outside Modena, there is an acetaia called Aceaia Pedroni. Here they make balsamic vinegar, the real balsamic vinegar, and the Pedroni family have been making it in this location since 1862. Now run by Italo, 80 and his wife Franca (who still cooks in the family taverna), they make balsamic vinegar and some wines, including lambrusco and pignoletto (local sparkling wines).
We all know balsamic vinegar, but few of us know the real stuff. The Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (which it must be called by law) takes a minimum of 12 years to mature through a patient process of evaporation and careful management in a family of at least five barrels, called a battery. This process is protected and governed by law, and the vinegar and acetaia are checked by government representatives.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar starts with grapes, Trebbiano (a white grape) in Acetaia Pedroni’s case. These are gently crushed, now by machine, but before by children primarily, as it needed to be gentle. The grapes are then cooked and reduced to create a grape must. This must is fermented in batteries of barrels, some of which are ancient, as a balsamic barrel is never thrown out, it is repaired, sometimes by putting a new barrel on the outside but always keeping the old barrel, as this is where flavour is. A battery must have a minimum of five barrels, from small to large, each one increasing in size.
Every year, 10% of the barrel contents are lost to evaporation, called the angels share. So every year, the barrels are topped up starting with the smallest, with vinegar from the previous barrel. The largest barrel is topped up with freshly cooked grape must. The barrels can only be made from oak, chestnut, cherry, mulberry or juniper.
At the end of the 12 year period (or 25, depending on which they are making), a litre is extracted from the smallest cask for bottling and the process continues. They could of course bottle the whole thing but then the process would stop. So, they don’t. It is a beautiful thing, if you think about it. Natural, patient and with no avarice. The resulting vinegar is a sweet sour viscous nectar, every drop precious and carefully obtained.
There are other wonderful traditions surrounding this. When a child is born into the family a battery is created for them. A woman’s battery was her dowry. Franca also comes from a vinegar family and so Italo received her balsamic vinegar battery when they wed. Italo’s son, Giusseppe, now 40, has his battery on display in the extra old room. And they have 13 other family batteries, going back to 1862 (but not on display). This extraordinary heritage and tradition is a gorgeous treasure.
What about the balsamic vinegar that we know and use? It is an industrial product where the cooked grape must is simply combined with wine vinegar and then aged however the producer would like to age it, and for however long. Some of them can be excellent. At Acetaia Pedroni they make one and age it for 7 years in barrique (a large barrel), but they cannot be compared to the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, which can be identified by the bottle that it is sold in (always he same and part of the regulations), and the name (which to be fair, is not very different at all). The flavour too, of course.
You can see now why the standard 100ml bottles of Italo’s 12 year old vinegar start at €45. Acetaia Pedroni also make a 12 year old balsamic vinegar that is aged in juniper barrels, Umberto, which I loved. It had robust savoury notes standing in the midst of the otherwise velvet vinegar pool. I think it would be wonderful with game meat. Giusseppe’s vinegar comes next and is the first is an extra old vinegar (25 years). From there you can buy from the great grandfather Claudio’s battery (for €150 for 100ml), finishing at Cesare, the oldest vinegar at Acetaia Pedroni, at €250 a bottle.
I will be back, I have yet to eat in their restaurant, and it looks terrific. And I will.