Family, Tradition, and Modena’s Black Gold: Everything You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Know About Balsamic Vinegar
A long, narrow driveway leads straight into fields of freshly tilled soil. At the end, there’s an enormous lemon-yellow house with green trim. Two giant, all-white sheepdogs fall over themselves to greet you. There’s a friendly donkey named Lola who roams around the backyard garden full of flowers, a fountain with goldfish, and fruit trees of every imaginable kind. Plums, apricots, apples, pears, figs, pomegranates, persimmons, cherries, and peaches. And grapes, of course. The vineyard is visible just over the gate near the sheep pen. The sheep wail baaah in pitches that seem to range as much as three octaves. The goats follow their lead, startling the small muster of peacocks nearby, who disappear behind the shed.
Inside the house, the kitchen is unmistakably Italian. Decorative blue and white tiles add texture to the terracotta counters. There’s an industrial-sized stove right in the middle, usually with a boiling pot or two on top. Copper tools and utensils, some several hundreds of years old, cover the walls and every available horizontal surface. Bowls of freshly picked tomatoes, zucchini blossoms, and basil wait patiently for the next meal.
This isn’t the setting for an Italian Austen-esque romance novel. And though I sometimes felt like I was lucid dreaming here, this place isn’t something I made up. This is the location of Acetaia Malagoli Daniele, a family-run, small-scale business producing traditional balsamic vinegar. It’s also the Malagoli family’s home.
When I arrived, nervous and tired from traveling all morning, I was plopped down at the family dinner table and fed. Mortadella, melon, crackers with homemade balsamic vinegar and caramelized onion jam, three glasses of a 60-year-old red wine, half a shot of rakia, followed by dessert of gelato made from buffalo milk (safe to say this is objectively the best ice cream in the world). As I ate, Daniele Malagoli himself told me how much they enjoy hosting WWOOFers like me, that they love exchanging knowledge and experience with young people who come to their farm from all over the world.
I nodded enthusiastically as he spoke because my mouth was full and I had no other way of expressing my gratitude with my Duolingo beginner’s level Italian. His words were comforting, but if this welcome was any indication of what the next two weeks would be like, it wouldn’t be a very equal exchange. The Malagolis opened their home to me, cooked for me, taught me about their business and local farms, and brought me on a number of gelato outings which often involved buying more than one gelato per person. In return, I trimmed overgrown vines in the vineyard and boxed bottles of vinegar for their shop. I’m at a loss for what I could possibly do to repay them for their generosity.
Although, evangelically spreading what I’ve learned about balsamic vinegar and how important it is to support small-scale producers like the Malagolis might be a good start.
I’m not going to lie. I lost sleep trying to think of a way to make normal people care about balsamic vinegar (and by “normal people” I mean anyone who doesn’t lose sleep over balsamic vinegar). It’s one of those things most people don’t give a second thought. You occasionally add it to your salad. You pat yourself on the back if you buy the vinaigrette with Paul Newman’s face on it because the packaging says something about charity. If you’re me, you don’t use it at all because the smell of it is borderline repulsive.
When I arrived on the Malagoli’s doorstep, I, like you, had no substantial understanding of balsamic vinegar, its history, or its significance in Modenese cuisine. I didn’t know about the inextricable link between traditional balsamic vinegar and the families who make it. Or the weight of the word “traditional.” Or how a bottle could possibly cost 100 Euros for 100 mL. Luxury goods like wine and cheese have always piqued my interest for obvious reasons, but vinegar? Nobody celebrates the holidays or a marriage or the birth of a child by uncorking a bottle of vinegar.
Except… some people do.
Let’s start at the start. The earliest official record of balsamic vinegar is from 1046, when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III was passing through present-day Emilia-Romagna and was gifted with a small silver bottle containing a thick, sweet, black liquid. However, there are even earlier accounts in the region that reference a mysterious black “elixir” dating back to hundreds of years BC. Back then, the vinegar wasn’t used to flavor food as much as it was used for medicine, as a tonic. In fact, the “balsamic” qualification of this type of vinegar comes from the same root word as “balm” and therefore has nothing to do with balsam firs, which I always thought were related somehow.
For hundreds of years, the tradition of making balsamic vinegar has been an incredibly intimate family affair. With the birth of each daughter, wealthy, landed families would begin a new barrel of vinegar in her honor. That vinegar would age as the child aged, and once she was ready to marry, the vinegar became a dowry and was given to the family she married into. The firstborn male in every family would inherit not only the family’s land but also all of the barrels that had been passed down from generation to generation. With the land to grow the grapes and the accumulated barrels in his attic, the eldest brother and his family would be responsible for maintaining the barrels and keeping the tradition alive.
Every year at Christmas, the daughter would traditionally exchange 1 Liter of aged vinegar for grapes from her eldest brother’s land. She needed to create grape must (made from pulverizing whole grapes into juice) in order to keep her small collection barrels full. In this way, she could keep producing vinegar for her own family to use. These traditions, which succeeded in preserving the ancient method of creating balsamic vinegar, are inseparable not only from this land but also the families who have lived here for hundreds of years.
Today, about 2,000 families continue to make balsamic vinegar using the traditional method. Though uncommon, some of these families own barrels that have been in constant use for over 300 years. Many of the barrels in the attic of the Malagolis’ big yellow house have been passed down for generations, representing hundreds of years of family history. While the vinegar is made exactly the same way today as it was back then, the rules of dowries and inheritance have fallen out of fashion. Daniele Malagoli, for example, received only part of his family’s barrels, as did all of his brothers. Following tradition, however, both of the Malagoli daughters have barrels that were started in their honor.
Slow and Steady… and Really, Really Small
Producing traditional balsamic vinegar is a slow process. At Aceteia Malagoli Daniele, it starts in the vineyard with three varieties of sweet, white grapes that Barbara Malagoli grows organically and harvests herself by hand. The grapes are pressed into must, which is then cooked for around 30 hours depending on the year’s yield. The cooked grape must ferments for a few short weeks before it is transferred to the first and largest wooden barrel of its life cycle.
The barrels are left in the attic, which gets very hot in the summer. There’s a small hole in the top of each one that accelerates evaporation in the heat of the summer so that, come winter, each barrel has lost about 10% of its volume. At this time, Barbara taste-tests every single barrel in the attic (500-700 in all) to correct for noticeable flavor variations. She then begins to fill the empty spaces in the barrels, starting with the smallest barrel in the battery and replacing vinegar with the contents of the barrel one size larger. When she gets to the largest barrel, containing the battery’s youngest vinegar, she fills the empty space with the season’s newly harvested and processed vinegar.
The resulting balsamic vinegar, which can only be taken from the smallest of the barrels, is thick, sweet, and dark brownish black. The oldest vinegars, which have undergone this process every winter for 25 years or more, often take on characteristics from their cherry, chestnut, or oak barrels. Each family has a different recipe for their vinegar: different grape ratios, different types of barrels in varying orders within the battery, etc. All of these subtle differences result in flavor and aroma variations in the final product.
At the end of the entire process, after the cooking and the evaporation and the half-century of aging, there is very little vinegar left to show for it. In fact, 100 kilograms of unprocessed grapes makes about 800 grams of traditional balsamic vinegar. Producers could theoretically increase capacity, but there are a number of high barriers (sourcing grapes locally, finding the appropriate space, certification requirements which I discuss further below, plus financing new production when they won’t make any new revenue for another 25 years). There’s just not much economic incentive for these businesses to scale up, so they tend to stay very small.
The unparalleled quality of traditional balsamic vinegar, coupled with its scarcity on the market, have rightfully earned it the nickname “Modena’s black gold.” Given the time it takes to make a small bottle, it comes as no surprise some sell for hundreds of Euros or more. Now you may be wondering how this delicacy relates to the balsamic vinaigrette on your salad. The answer: very little, apart from the name.
What’s in a Name?
Until recently, traditional balsamic vinegar was sold only locally in the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Modena. It was made in small batches by families like the Malagolis, often as a hobby or simply to honor family heritage. This all changed when the vinegar was introduced to US markets in 1977. The condiment grew in popularity until demand for balsamic vinegar outstripped its modest supply. Filling this gap became an opportunity for profit.
Today, balsamic vinegar is ubiquitous in shopping carts and on restaurant menus because it has been all but replaced by an industrially-produced substitute that bears little resemblance to the original. For many years, there was no differentiation between these products on the market. Balsamic vinegar was balsamic vinegar, even when it wasn’t.
In the last 15 years or so, there’s been an organized effort to wade through the confusion and determine what should be considered “real” balsamic vinegar. This resulted in the establishment of two Consortiums, which would set the standards, oversee production, and regulate marketing and distribution of balsamic vinegar. These two governing bodies, though, had very different ideas of what should count as real balsamic vinegar.
IGP Certified Balsamic Vinegar
The Consortium Aceto Balsamico di Modena (ABM) was founded in 1993 with the purpose of granting vinegar producers with a certification of Protected Geographical Indication, or IGP. The certification, usually printed on the front of a bottle in shiny official-looking lettering, guarantees that at least one part of the production process took place in Modena. One part. That’s all.
Of course, there are other procedures and requirements that producers have to meet to earn the label. There’s a limit on how much wine vinegar can be used in the recipe, up to 80% as opposed to 0% for traditional balsamic vinegar. That’s why when you read the ingredients list on a bottle of IGP balsamic vinegar, the first ingredient will undoubtedly be wine vinegar, which is much cheaper to produce and gives the final product its pungent acidity.
Furthermore, IGP producers must adhere to a minimum timeframe for aging the vinegar, a whopping 2 months, in stainless steel vats. Compare that to 25 years in specially-selected wooden barrels.
This means that IGP producers can buy grapes from China or Morocco (countries that have much looser restrictions on chemical pesticides than the EU or US), age the vinegar for two months in stainless steel vats in Canada or the US, add 80% wine vinegar to the mixture, then bottle the final product in Modena. According to ABM, this vinegar qualifies as “Official Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.”
Of course, it’s possible to find high quality balsamic vinegar with the IGP label. Some producers will take the time to source grapes thoughtfully and age the vinegar more traditionally in wooden barrels. But it’s not a requirement for the certification, so most don’t bother. Unless otherwise specified, the result is a concoction that’s almost entirely harsh, corrosive wine vinegar, sweetened with sugar, colored with artificial caramels, and preserved with chemicals.
This is the balsamic vinegar that we find in the grocery store, almost exclusively. Barbara told me over dinner once that she has an acquaintance who produces industrial-scale balsamic vinegar in this way. She said he doesn’t allow his family to use it in their food.
DOP Certified “Traditional” Balsamic Vinegar
The second consortium, Consortium Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizonale di Modena (ABTM), is the perfect foil to ABM. To the untrained eye, there would appear to be no difference at all between the two. But the operative word that differentiates between the authentic vinegar produced by families like the Malagolis versus dyed and sweetened wine vinegar is traditional.
ABTM was founded in its current form in 2013. Its mission was to reinvigorate the traditional balsamic vinegar market, “safeguarding not only of the product itself but also of the entire cultural heritage and the wealth of Modenese traditions.” It does so by setting incredibly strict standards and overseeing every single step of the process for producing traditional balsamic vinegar. Only a select few producers earn the official certification of Denomination of Protected Origin, or DOP.
The process begins with a panel of professional taste-testers that judge submitted vinegar samples based on taste, consistency, aroma, and acidity. The vinegar must consist only of cooked grape juice from the three approved grape varieties, all of which must be grown in the region. It must be aged in a minimum of three different types of traditional wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years.
Of course, taste is subjective and some testers are likely to prefer some characteristics over others. Given that families in the region follow their own specific recipes, it’s likely that if a vinegar fails the taste test one year simply because one of the testers doesn’t like that particular combination of traits, that family will never make it past this stage of the process and have the opportunity to sell their product as “DOP-certified traditional balsamic vinegar.”
Once the sample passes the taste test, it is sent to a chemical laboratory (the most prestigious and expensive in all of Europe, of course) for analysis. The laboratory tests for acidity, which must be at exactly 6%, as well as naturally-produced sulfite content. If the vinegar passes the lab tests, it can move on to the next step.
The Consortium then oversees the entire bottling process from start to finish. In fact, families are not allowed to bottle the vinegar themselves. Each year, the Consortium takes only 10% of the contents of the approved barrels. There is precisely one bottle shape that is approved by the ABTM, the design of which was commissioned by a designer for Ferrari and Lamborghini at no small cost. Each bottle is exactly 100 mL, never bigger and never smaller.
Finally, the label design must be approved and printed by the Consortium. If a family is able to meet all of these requirements, they can sell their product as “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.” Due to the intensity of this process and all the requirements producers must meet to satisfy the ABTM, of the 2,000 families producing traditional balsamic vinegar, only about 100 of them can legally sell their product as such.
Under current regulations, about 100 million liters of industrial “balsamic vinegar of Modena” is produced each year (the stuff we find in grocery stores that’s mostly wine vinegar dressed up as authentic balsamic vinegar). In contrast, only 10,000 liters of certified “traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena” is produced each year, a quantity set by ABTM. In other words, only 0.1% of the balsamic vinegar on the market is produced using traditional methods and meets the requirements to be certified as DOP.
So, what’s in a name? With the rules in place today, a bottle of 80% wine vinegar made from grapes grown in China and bottled in Modena can be “Official Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.” In other words, a substance that isn’t balsamic vinegar gets to be called as balsamic vinegar.
Meanwhile, the vinegar that Barbara Malagoli makes herself following traditional recipes, which is aged for 12 years, bottled by hand on her kitchen table, and has an acidity of 4.5% rather than ABTM’s required 6% is… nothing. This vinegar, which is of the same quality as any DOP certified bottle, cannot be sold as balsamic vinegar because it meets neither of the Consortium’s requirements. This traditional balsamic vinegar must instead be called by the agreed upon term, which is “black condiment of Modena.”
How do we sort through all these names and figure out what’s what and where we should put our dollars? IGP is fake but cheap. DOP is real but can be extremely expensive. “Black condiment” is both real and relatively inexpensive but sounds like little more than fancy ketchup. How can we use this information to make practical purchasing decisions? Is there a better way?
Rule of Thumb: Know Your Farmer
There’s no better place to start thinking philosophically about food than at an Italian dinner table. During my stay at Acetaia Malagoli Daniele, Barbara Malagoli would prepare perfectly cooked meals and could tell me where nearly every ingredient came from and the name of the farmer who made it. Vegetables typically came from her garden. She exchanged homemade balsamic vinegar for fruits, meat, and cheese with various friends and farmers nearby. She preserved and pickled and canned all she could to last through the winter. She believed in knowing the source of her food not because it was revolutionary, but because that’s how things are done here in “the land of fast cars and slow food.”
After learning all this history and discovering the treasure of traditional balsamic vinegar made by hand in the attics of family homes, I’ve never been so convinced of the importance of buying food from a farmer, from someone you can look in the eye and shake hands with. The contrast between that-which-calls-itself-balsamic-vinegar and traditional balsamic vinegar could not be more stark. Knowing the difference can steer you away from consuming glorified toilet bowl cleaner and towards playing a small part in preserving a tradition that hasn’t changed for thousands of years.
Still not convinced? Still think it sounds like too much work to find a small-scale producer like the Malagolis to buy balsamic vinegar from? Let me leave you with one last anecdote.
As I discussed above, fake balsamic vinegar was invented to meet demand and make money. The vinegar is quick and easy to produce. Though some producers can’t bring themselves to feed it to their families, it’s marketed as official, authentic balsamic vinegar to consumers who are none the wiser. It’s a money-making endeavor, not the quality or traditional product it claims to be.
Meanwhile, the people who make traditional balsamic vinegar do so because their families have passed on the tradition for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until recently that Sofia Malagoli, the eldest Malagoli daughter, decided to commercialize her family’s production and make a small business of this tradition. The Malagolis restructured production to meet ABTM’s strict rules and began selling their vinegar with the DOP certification as a way to support the industry and educate people on the history and tradition behind balsamic vinegar. The catch? Many of the families selling DOP certified balsamic vinegar are operating at a loss, or are barely breaking even.
While the Consortium has succeeded in standardizing and protecting traditional balsamic vinegar, it has done so at a significant cost to the families who make it. Each step of the process must be paid for by producers, from the taste-testing to the lab analysis to the bottling and labeling, plus membership fees and government taxes. At the end of the day, these extra costs can eat up 50-60% of the revenues producers earn selling the DOP certified vinegar. In other words, nobody gets into the business of making traditional balsamic vinegar for money.
When asked why she chose to go through this process, to take on the extra work and bureaucracy for such little return, Barbara Malagoli shrugged. She said simply, “I do it out of love.”
If you’re ever near Modena and would like a tour of Acetaia Malagoli Daniele, a cooking class with Barbara, or to buy some of their vinegar, check out their website here! To keep up with Sofia and the business goings-on, check out their Instagram page here!
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Categories: Food Musings