Balsamic bliss

Posted by on Sep 13, 2011 | 0 comments

I should have known by the length of the name that the Office of the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena that I should not take them lightly. The northern Italian town of Modena is pleasantly relaxed and not usually prone to take itself too seriously–boasting, after all, one of the highest rates of bicycle use in Europe–but I came to discover that around here, balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) is a very serious enterprise.

Some vinegries have been operating in Modena for half a millennium, producing syrupy vinegars as deep as mahogany and sweet as honey, with a richly acerbic flavor built of layer upon layer of infinitely subtle tones. The most traditional of these vinegars are subject to rigorous testing to maintain standards of quality. It was this strangely medieval testing ritual that I came to witness at the Consortium that day.

In a den that resembled an alchemist’s laboratory, six ancient men sat around a rough-hewn oak table, their secrecy ensured by small cubicle-like partitions. They held anonymous glass vials of different batches of balsamic vinegars up to a candle to study light refraction. They measured viscosity, watching fingers of syrupy vinegar run down the side of the vial. They wafted vinegar fumes. They measured clarity. One man jiggled his vinegar and appeared mesmerized by the glopping sound. I suspect that deep down, we all enjoy taking ourselves just a little too seriously, but these judges perhaps more so than most.

After this careful analysis, the judges marked their scores and then tasted the concoction. Each could score up to 328 points for frankness, finesse, harmony, and persistence–among other precise measurements–though only those that score 250 points or higher would go on to the bottling plant. About 19,000 rounded glass bottles of 100ml each (about 3 oz.) receive the prestigious Consortium seal each year; the rest go back into the barrel in hopes that they will improve with age. If not, they will eventually be packaged without the prestigious bottle, seal, and label: “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.”

The job of the Consortium is to maintain the purity of a tradition that dates back centuries. Unfortunately for the consumer, that high standard means high prices: the tiny bottles fetch a small fortune in gourmet stores around the world. The balsamic vinegar inside has been prized by European royalty as both condiment and medicine to cure all ills since Henry II ordered a barrel of it in 1046. Vinegars not approved by the Consortium may still be aged in the traditional way: evaporating slowly over 12 to 25 years, each year getting transferred to a smaller cask of a different wood, picking up the flavor of the new wood and slowly condensing into a syrupy nectar. But only the Consortium’s seal ensures that you’re getting the real thing–properly wafted, waved, sipped, and glopped.