When my father Pietro starts stacking wood in the fireplace and announces that his friends will be over for dinner, I know what’s coming. As his guests arrive, he’ll welcome them with glasses of deep and tannic Nero di Troia. He’ll chat with them about one thing or another as he checks on the fire. And then, as the thin outer layer transforms into gray ash, he’ll know it’s time to put the tagliata di manzo—boneless rib steaks—on a grate suspended just inches above the embers.
After a few minutes spent carefully watching the grill, Pietro will move the beef to a platter, and with theatrical flourish, lash a line of aceto balsamico over the beef. It’s that last embellishment that somehow always turns a simple dish into something different; rich, rare meat and aged vinegar combine harmoniously in a meal that’s almost medieval.
The greatest attribute of traditionally-made balsamic vinegar (besides its complex and unforgettable taste) is the centuries of history in every drop. Nowadays, lackluster versions with Italian-sounding names fill supermarket shelves worldwide, but there are only a few families—mostly headed by women, and only in the Emilia-Romagna region—that still produce the real thing.
While it’s easy enough to make a sweet, dark vinegar, true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is pretty much impossible to replicate. It requires not only a painstaking commitment and decades of patience, but also a highly specific terroir: The liquid is inseparable from its birthplace. In Emilia-Romagna, its production is tightly regulated even within the region, where it may only be made by one of two approved consortiums—one in Modena and the other in Reggio Emilia.
These consortiums each produce two versions of their local liquid. A comparably inexpensive, commercial type is easily identifiable by a Protected Geographical Indication (IGP) mark on the bottle, which ensures the vinegar’s provenance. This balsamic is intended for everyday use; it’s ready after only a few months of barrel-aging, resulting in a typically thinner, lighter, and more acidic flavor profile (though overall, these vary significantly from brand to brand). But only a tiny fraction of the balsamic vinegar made in Modena and Reggio Emilia is considered “tradizionale” and therefore permitted to sport the unmistakable red and yellow Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) stamp. This rare style is made in small batches using an extraordinarily time-consuming traditional process; it’s sold in tiny bottles that can cost hundreds of dollars.
While the IGP version may be made with fruit grown outside the region, DOP balsamic must begin with local wine grapes like Lambrusco and Trebbiano, which are pressed and cooked down into a thick must. The reduction is then transferred to barrels and left to ferment naturally, without the use of added yeasts. Once the alcohol level reaches about 7 percent, the liquid is moved through a sequence of five to seven open wooden barrels of decreasing volumes; these casks must be constructed using specific woods, including oak, juniper, and cherry, each imparting its own particular nuance on the vinegar within. Hot summers and humid winters gradually concentrate the vinegar in the open casks, and each year, the liquid is transferred to the next smallest barrel in the sequence.
Then the real waiting game begins. After at least 12 years of aging, an inky sample is taken from the smallest barrel and thoroughly examined by a panel of experts. If it passes their scrutiny, the producer is permitted to bottle and sell the resulting liquid with the DOP designation.
“You only need grapes, lots of passion, and time,” says Alessandra Medici, owner of Medici Ermete, a wine and traditional balsamic vinegar estate in the countryside of Reggio Emilia. When I visited her acetaia, Medici led me to the attic; as soon as she opened the door, we were embraced by a sweet, acidic scent which had been developing since well before I was born. “We keep [the vinegar] in the attic because of the variable microclimate,” she explained. “But I like to think that we leave this product up here, closer to the sky, so that angels can have a taste of it.”
The estate’s barrels each had a name and a date attached to it. According to tradition, every time a baby girl was born in Modena and Reggio Emilia, well-to-do local families would entrust an artisan with the construction of a set of barrels. The batch of vinegar within them came of age as the daughter did, and upon her marriage, the precious liquid went with her to the in-laws—a sort of liquid dowry. Eventually, local families began giving a set of barrels to any newborn, including the boys. “It’s like [those barrels] were one of our limbs,” Medici recalls. Her own set is now 53 years old; the oldest in her attic belonged to her grandfather Ermete, who was born in 1906.
Medici sells only fifteen hundred 100-milliliter bottles per year, mostly to people who visit the estate to observe the production in person. (The real revenue comes from the estate’s winery.) These days, for those who still produce it, traditional balsamic vinegar is a way to keep an ancient process alive, rather than a business to become rich. According to Medici, you should doubt any producer who does.
The local vinegar is a popular ingredient in many of Emilia-Romagna’s restaurants. Chefs and bartenders use it to flavor Negronis, finish dishes of tortellini, and garnish fresh strawberries. 76-year-old Annamaria Barbieri is a cook and owner of the restaurant Antica Moka in Modena’s countryside, and understands the value of the 140 barrels of tradizionale balsamic in her own attic. While she often uses the lighter IGP variety in her cooking, she finishes meats, seafoods, and even sweets exclusively with the DOP “black gold.” “It’s exceptional—it gives an unbelievable aroma,” Barbieri explains. “You can put it on anything—but you have to add it in the right measured amount,” she adds. What’s the “right amount”? With her decades of experience, Barbieri knows by instinct; I usually portion out servings to taste by the drop.
Balsamic vinegar is intimately tied to regional traditions, and gifting a small bottle drawn from the last barrel of a line is considered a sign of friendship, great respect, and love. “It’s an essential part of our life and culture,” Babieri says. She warns that anybody new to the delicacy should take their time to get to know and appreciate it. “Close your eyes, taste its delicacy, and leave for a trip of mind and heart,” she suggests. “You won’t be able to live without it.”
Some connoisseurs collect balsamic vinegars from multiple producers, while others––if they are lucky enough to get the chance––adopt their own barrels, and have the precious liquid shipped to them annually. However, it makes sense that many Italians—my father included—don’t have much of a preference between producers. After tradizionale vinegar has passed inspection and been approved for the DOP designation, regardless of whether it’s produced in Modena or Reggio Emilia, it will be invariably excellent.
I live in New York now, and while I wasn’t fortunate enough to have had a set of barrels commissioned for me at birth, I like to keep a bottle of this precious vinegar in my kitchen for the occasional taste of Italy, doled out by the drop. And every time I go back, I secretly hope my father will have bought the steaks, lit the fire, and set out a bottle of aceto balsamico to welcome me home.