Modena...a Perfect Blend of Sweet and Sour

While in Italy, I imagined a beautiful day spent wine tasting. I could picture it in my mind..... a drive through the Tuscan countryside, preferably in a convertible, on a road that curves through the hillsides surrounded by flowing fields of vineyards. We would arrive at an old Italian villa, the gates would open and we would be welcomed as if we were part of the family. We would walk around the villa, the vineyards, all while learning about the history of the wine making processes and end our day with a traditional Italian meal, paired with the different wines. Maybe I’d even be able to cross off a bucket list item of grape stomping! I believe this comes from the I Love Lucy episode I watched as a child. But in real life, sometimes you just have to settle for what you can afford and this vision doesn’t exactly fit into the Cummings’ budget anytime soon. 

Jim scheduled a tour in the Emilia Romagna region of Modena, which did involve a villa, vineyards and fit into our budget....but not one of of balsamic vinegar. He must have lost his mind! He knows I am not a vinegar lover! Suddenly my vision went poof and was now replaced with the sour memory of my childhood. 

Growing up my mom and Nani almost always served salads that were dosed with a homemade blend of oil and vinegar. And unlike my brother, who would drink the remaining dressing out of his bowl, I would choose to go without. There were a few times when a plain salad was placed on the table, with a choice of a dressing, in which I would always go with anything other than oil and vinegar, even blue cheese, and what kid chooses blue cheese? The one that doesn’t like vinegar!

Bus (6 euros RT), Train (35 euros RT), Car (20 euros RT)
On the train ride to Modena, trying to excite me, Jim shared that Modena was also home to three Italian car manufacturers;  Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. Sounds great Jim, maybe our driver Thomas will pick us up at the station in one of those…maybe even a convertible. Thomas picked us up in a Mercedes station wagon which did make for a comfy ride out to the villa.

We pulled through the gates, leading to a beautiful old Italian villa where we were greeted by the son of the Gambigliani Zoccoli family, Giorgio. He welcomed us like family and explained his home is ours, therefore no one would be waiting on us. We were to help ourselves to coffee, wine or water and free to explore the villa. We poured ourselves a homemade sparkling rose wine and walked around to admire the property. As we waited, if I ignored the fact that we were about to taste vinegar, this was exactly how I imagined the start to my dreamy day.

Learning about Balsamic Vinegar of Modena:
In 1800, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena began being appreciated and was presented in the most important events of the time. 
In 2000, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P. (Protected Designation of Origin) obtained European protection and in 2009, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena was registered by the European Union and granted the Protected Geographical Indication (P.G.I.).  

The labels I.G.P. or P.G.I. and D.O.P. on bottles have two distinct meanings. I.G.P. means at least some part of the product was made using materials from the region. Whereas D.O.P. means the entire product was made using materials from the region. 

The so-called “Black Gold of Modena” is today one of the ambassadors for Italian food excellence in the world and is exported to over 120 Countries.

Let the tour Begin: (60 euros for both)
Giorgio explained the history of his family's balsamic vinegar and that many Modena families have always produced balsamic vinegar for personal consumption. Today the family still has barrels that belonged to his great-grandfather. But the turning point came in the seventies when his grandfather decided to start three hundred barrels for the generation of his children and grandchildren that weren’t even born yet. At the time, nobody knew that the product they had in their attic and had been enjoying for many years would be liked, even loved by people who would be interested and willing to buy it. His father and grandfather therefore decided to further invest in their passion! Interestingly enough, the knock off brands of balsamic vinegar in supermarkets is what initially drew so much attention to Modena.

We went on to learn about the four distinct stages of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P.

Harvesting, pressing and cooking the must:
The process begins in their vineyards with typical Modena grapes. They have 40 different vines, with the most common being 13 varieties of Lambrusco and 20 of Trebbiano. In September they start the harvest processes by pressing the grapes and obtaining the raw must. Unfortunately there is no stomping involved. The must is then cooked for several hours. 

Fermentation and Acetification:
When the cooking is completed, the next stage, the natural fermentation process begins, which is the most critical. Without being able to use yeast or control the temperature the product starts a natural alcoholic fermentation. Once the right degrees of alcohol has been obtained, they take the product from the large barrels of their vinegar factory and use that product as a graft for the fermenting vats (barrels). This stops the alcoholic fermentation process and starts the acetic oxidation process which transforms alcohol into acetic acid. 

Maturation and Aging:
The last stage is the long aging process where the cooked, fermented and acetified product is placed in a series of vats (barrels) made of different woods to age. Traditionally the vinegar factory is located in the attic of homes because it needs heat in the summer to ripen and cold in the winter for the acetobacteria to stop, this is called resting. 

After we learned about the different stages of the process we were taken upstairs to the attic of the family’s home to see their personal vats, which were started over 100 years ago. Upon entering the attic the smell was very strong making my eyes water, but after a while I found it to be an intoxicating sweet and wonderful smell. Here we saw many batterias (rows) of barrels, in a descending order from large to small, some were even labeled with specific family members' names.

For years, the vinegar goes through what is called “maturation” in the middle part of the batteria, then enters the aging phase in the last few barrels.  For Traditional Balsamic, the ultimate step is decanting into the smallest barrel, where the vinegar rests and matures. 

Sometime between January and March the annual withdrawals and top-ups are carried out. Starting with the smallest vat, once it’s been verified that it has been 12 or 25 years, they proceed with the sampling. They take the sample from the smallest barrel and because that drops the level of that barrel, they use the next barrel in the batteria to transfer the same quantity taken, along with the evaporation that occurred during the summer from the next barrel to place in the barrel they just sampled. They repeat the same procedure for all the barrels of the batteria. Once they reach the last and largest barrel, to bring it back to level, they fill it with the amount they took out using the current year's must. 

After the withdrawals and topping off of each vat in the batteria, they cover the barrels with a piece of cloth and declare that batch closed! During this part of the tour we watched as they took samples from the first, middle and last vat so we were able to see the thickness, color and smell of the different barrels.  

It is mandatory by law that each year's samples are of high quality and must pass a checklist of items performed by several individuals at different times and alone in a room. Only then can it be approved to be called Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P.  It is then transferred to a unique bottle only reserved for vinegar that has passed this vigorous verification. The two different years are represented in this specific bottle; the 12 years (ivory capsule) and the 25 years (gold capsule). 

Tasting and Lunch:

We were brought back downstairs and seated at an elegantly set table, with one bottle of each balsamic vinegar placed in front of every person. Mario, the father of the family, welcomed us to his home and then led us in the tasting. He explained how to taste the vinegar......holding it in your mouth for a bit and then smooshing it with your tongue against the roof of your mouth until it dissolves. 

We started with the extra vecchio, the 25 year. As I poured it into the small spoon, it had the consistency of molasses. I hesitantly placed the spoonful in my mouth....the taste was slightly acidic making the back of my throat tickle, but as I squished it to the roof of my mouth the sweet balanced out the sour and was so yummy, it was literally mouth watering good. 

The 12 year old was similar but not as sweet or syrupy. I quickly understood why it is referred to as the "Black Gold of Modena"…both were absolutely delicious. 

Mario described what his wife prepared for lunch and shared how he liked to pair the foods with the two different vinegars, but gave us the go ahead to do as we liked. During the presentation, his young granddaughter came in yelling, Papa time for lunch. He shared that each part of the villa was designated for his children and was their home. Shortly there after he left to go eat with his family leaving us to enjoy an amazing lunch of:

-3 different ages of Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.P. (18, 24 and 30 months)
-2 types of ricotta cheese- sheep and cow
-2 different types of omelets
-3 different types of baked focaccia bread
-Variety of Italian meats: Prosciutto Crudo di Parma D.O.P, Mortadella Bologna I.G.P, Salame, Coppa, Lardo, Ciccioli, Pancetta and Coppa di testa
-Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.P. Risotto
-2 different wines (Grasparossa and Sorbara Lambrusco wine)

We shared lunch with seven other people from different countries; Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, UK and Australia and it turned into a typical Italian family meal.  Everyone was eating, drinking, talking, sharing cultures and stories and it reminded me of childhood Sunday dinners at my Nani and Pop’s house.

After we finished lunch Mario returned with desserts; a cheesecake and chocolate cream crumb cake. Again he shared how he liked to pair the different vinegars on the desserts that his wife made. He also brought two digestive homemade liqueurs; a Limoncello and a Nocino liqueur, which is made from green walnuts on their farm. Everything was so flavorful and tasty many of us went back for seconds and thirds all while pouring vinegar on everything. I even contemplated putting a dash in my drinks, but thought that was a little over the top. 

We don't do a lot of tours, but this was absolutely amazing from beginning to end. We visited a beautiful Italian villa with vineyards, where thankfully we didn’t drive and could partake in the wines and liqueurs. We were made to feel like part of a family visiting and learning. 

Both Jim and I bought a bottle of each the 12 and 25. They are sold in 100 ml bottles which are great for carry on luggage. However, even though they are under the liquid limit, I am a little concerned that as we go through security they will get ganked. I have found that airport personnel can pretty much make you get rid of whatever they might want.  When going through security it feels like you are their mercy, unless you want to get out of line and go through the hassle of going back to check on your luggage, which usually costs more than just buying what ever it is they "confiscate."

On our way home from Peru last year, I traveled with an expensive, barely used set of walking sticks the whole way but once we got to Arizona, they said I either had to check them in or leave them. I left them!  I will attempt to make it through security with these in my backpack, but if they tell me I can't, I will turn around and check on my luggage, even if it means missing my flight. I WILL get these back home to share with my family. 

We have been enjoying Jim’s 25 year bottle and I am not ashamed to say that I have been putting it on everything.... even my ice cream and it is absolutely delicious. Ironically, I am finding that most of my meals consist of olive oil and balsamic vinegar….. on everything…sometimes, it’s a snack and I just take a spoonful of each. So, if after reading this you find that your mouth is watering you can find Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena D.O.P. on Amazon and although it is expensive it will be worth it, I promise!

I can't help but feel like even though it wasn’t wine tasting in the Tuscan countryside, if I substituted vinegar for wine, which are both made from grapes, it was everything I imagined. A perfect blend of sweet and sour...just like life!


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