Pasta is a staple in Italian cuisine, often making up part of every Italian’s main meal for the day, particularly in southern Italy (“mezzogiorno”) and certain regions elsewhere in Italy such as Liguria (where pasta with pesto is a staple).
Good quality artisanal pasta is usually a pale-yellow color. Artificially-colored pastas tend to have a vibrant yellow hue. Pasta should be cooked “al dente” which literally means “to the tooth” in Italian. This refers to the ideal texture of cooked pasta which should have a firm bite yet not so firm that it tastes raw.
Traditionally, pasta was either homemade or made by skilled artisans who sold their handcrafted pastas in shops or delivered it to wealthy customers. Artisan pasta was commonplace in Italy’s commercial pasta capitals such as Naples and Genoa while the rest of Italy tended to rely on homemade pasta.
Traditional production method of pasta in Italy
Like most Italian food, pasta making has traditionally been an artisanal process.
Pasta begins with fresh, stone-ground, durum wheat flour (known as “durum semolina” or just “semolina”) obtained by milling locally-grown, organic durum wheat. Durum wheat is a hard wheat variety, “hard” meaning the grain is not easily broken apart. Durum wheat contains more protein, more gluten and is able to absorb more water. Soft wheat, so called because the grain breaks easily, is used to obtain white flour and is not ideally suited for pasta making. Durum wheat flour is coarser, granular and has a rich yellow color compared to soft wheat flour and this makes it ideal for pasta making. Italian pastas of the highest quality are traditionally made with 100% durum wheat flour and these tend to be more costly and are the most authentic Italian pastas. Pastas made with a mixture of semolina and soft wheat tend to be cheaper, of lower quality and, needless to say, are far from authentic.
The next step is making the pasta which is made entirely with just durum semolina and spring water. Because of the simplicity of the ingredients, the qualities of the ingredients are imperative for a quality outcome. The ingredients are combined to form a pliable, firm dough which is kneaded and then left to rest. After resting, the pasta is rolled out using a wooden rolling pin, and then cut to strips using a knife or molded into a variety of shapes.
The pasta can be eaten fresh, in which case it is sold immediately and is cooked immediately by the customer. If the pasta is not intended to be sold or consumed immediately, the pasta is dried, which preserves the pasta’s shelf life. Dried pasta is known as “pasta secche” in Italian. Traditionally, pasta is dried naturally, using just sunlight and air over very low temperatures, a process which could take weeks or more than a month. This long and slow drying process results in pasta that is well dried, yet not so dry that it ends up brittle. Large-scale, mass-produced pasta manufacturers on the other hand, dry their pasta artificially using mechanical driers, at considerably higher temperatures to reduce the drying time which results in “baked” rather than “dried” pasta. The consequence is that this “baked” pasta tends to break up easily when cooked unlike sun-and-air-dried pasta which retains a chewy al dente texture when cooked.
The pasta drying process requires skill and experience where airflow is adjusted depending on the wind, humidity and temperature conditions of the environment. The traditional pasta drying stage is divided into three main stages:
Stage 1: Incarmento
The first stage involved drying the surface of the pasta, usually by placing the fresh pasta under direct sunlight.
Stage 2: Rinvenimento
After the surface has dried due to the “incarmento” stage, the pasta is moved to an environment that is cooler and damper than its previous environment. This could be a cool cellar where it is left to rest for several hours which could be about 12 hours or so. As the pasta rests, the moisture retained within the dried surface of the pasta, seeps to the surface.
Stage 3: Essiccazione definitiva
The pasta is then transported to an environment that is cool yet not as damp as it was during the second stage. Here it is left to rest, carefully watched by the artisan pasta maker, until the pasta reaches the desired state of dryness. How long this takes depends on the ambient temperature and humidity. During summer months, it could take several days while during winter months it could take weeks, sometimes longer than a month, or sometimes the pasta cannot be dried at all.
Olives have been cultivated in Italy for centuries and tends to be particularly popular in southern Italian cuisine whereas in northern Italy, butter and lard tend to be more popular.
Like most oils, olive oil is susceptible to rancidity. Freshly pressed oil is at the height of its flavor, aroma and nutrition Oxidization of olive oil begins immediately after it is produced. For this reason, similar to milk, meat and seafood, olive oil is best consumed fresh, the fresher the better, (if possible, straight from the press) for maximum flavor and nutrition.. If olive oil is to be served uncooked such as in the case of salads, only the freshest olive oil should be used. If olive oil is over a year old, it is better to use it for cooking purposes.
The flavor of the oil depends on several factors such as the type of olives used, local growing conditions, harvesting time etc. It is not uncommon for artisanal olive oil producers in various areas of Italy be it Tuscany, Liguria or Umbria, to insist that their olive oil is the best.
Olive oil is a D.O.P. recognized product. D.O.P. stands for “Denominazione di Origine Protetta” in Italian which literally means “Protected Destination of Origin”. Olive oil with the D.O.P. mark is of the highest quality having been produced under strict E.U. guidelines. A few of the rules stipulate that the olives must be cultivated according to traditional methods, the oils must be exclusively produced in certain regions in Italy, using only natural ingredients (no chemicals and additives are allowed for D.O.P. olive oils, unlike some other oil products which use such chemicals for purposes such as oil extraction) and must be produced according to traditional methods.
Unlike D.O.P. designated olive oils which are exclusively made in Italy by artisan producers in specific regions of Italy, the title “Extra Virgin olive oil” is applicable to olive oil produced anywhere in the world and does not necessarily have to be produced by an artisanal olive oil producer. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a title reserved for olive oils obtained from the first pressing of olives and contains less than 0.8% acidity. Thus, an Extra Virgin Olive Oil produced mechanically will simply be sold as “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”. However, an Extra Virgin Olive Oil product produced by an artisan producer in a specific region in Italy, produced following the strict quality guidelines to qualify for a D.O.P. designation will be sold with as “Extra Virgin Olive Oil D.O.P.”. For instance, an Extra Virgin Olive Oil produced by a qualified artisan olive oil producer in Liguria would be sold as “Olio Extravergine Riviera Ligure DOP” (which translates into “Extra Virgin Olive Oil DOP Liguria”).
Traditional method of making olive oil in Italy
Olive oil production starts with olives. Italy has over 350 varieties of olive trees or “cultivars” but usually only certain varieties of olives are used for producing olive oil such as Frantoio, Taggiasca, Leccino, Ascolano, Pendolino and Moraiolo.
Frantoio is a typical olive varietal cultivated in central Italy, particularly in Tuscany, and is a highly prized variety for producing olive oil.
Taggiasca is an olive varietal from Linguria, Italy and this olive variety derives its name from the village of its origin – Taggia. Taggiasca olive trees have been cultivated for centuries and today there exist Taggiasca olive trees which are over hundreds of years old that are still bearing fruit.
Traditionally olive fruits are handpicked from the trees (not machine-picked) at the right stage of ripeness (usually just before they fully ripen). By allowing the olives to develop naturally on the tree to the right stage of ripeness, ensures a naturally fruity, less acidic and more flavorful olive oil. Olives that spontaneously drop from their branches are not used for olive oil production as usually these olives are fully ripened. Fully ripened or overly matured olives are not ideally suited for oil production.
Once picked, it is time to crush the olives to extract the oil. The sooner they are crushed after plucking, the better, as fresh olives produce a fresh-tasting olive oil. The longer the olives sit after plucking, the more susceptible they are to rancidity, mold and spoilage, particularly if they are stored in environments with little aeration. This inevitably would have a negative effect on the flavor of the oil. The manner of storage also greatly affects the final oil. If the olives undergo significant trauma during the storage and transportation process, the olives could be injured, which also has a negative effect on the final flavor of the oil. Such trauma is less likely to take place in small-batch olive oil production facilities. At larger-batch olive oil production facilities, the freshly-plucked olives could be stored in thin layers to minimize such injury.
Within hours of picking, the olives are crushed at the local “frantoio” (“oil mill” in Italian) or “frantoi” (plural) using a traditional stone mill known as “molazza” in Italian. These traditional stone mills have been used for centuries to produce olive oil and today, some artisan olive oil producers continue to use centuries-old mills to produce their oils. In ancient times, animals such as horses or donkeys would be used to power the stone wheels which crush the olives at low speed. This way, the olives are crushed at temperatures not exceeding 27 °C into a paste containing oil, water and fruit particles. This crushing process is aimed at releasing the oil from the vacuoles of the olives, assisting the small oil droplets to combine and form large oil droplets and allowing the fruit enzymes to amplify the aroma and flavor of the oil.
The resultant paste is then sent through a “pressing process” whereby the solid particles or “pomace”, known as “sansa” in Italian are separated from vegetation liquid comprising water and oil known as “mosto”, using a presser.
Traditionally, this is done by pouring the paste onto flat fiber disks which traditionally were made with natural fiber from hemp or coconut but nowadays these disks may be made of synthetic fiber materials as these are easier to clean. These fiber disks, known as “fiscolo” in Italian, are filled with a certain quantity of the olive paste, then piled on top of each other to form a vertical tower. Next, pressure is applied to squeeze out the liquids (vegetation water made up of water and oil) while the solids are retained in the fiber disks. The vegetation water which seeps out slowly is collected. Once this step is complete, the disks are disassembled and the solid residue taken out and set aside. The disks are cleaned thoroughly and the process is repeated. If the disks are insufficiently cleaned, remnant residue in the disk could ferment and negatively affect the flavor of the next batch of oil.
Sometimes the press fails to extract all the oil in the “first press”. So the “sansa” is subjected to a second or third pressing to release additional oil. However, the oil extracted after the first press would not be sold as “Extra Virgin”.
Modern day olive oil production processes may utilize a mechanical crusher (which crushes the olives), a mixer (to “malax” the paste helping small oil droplets to combine and form larger oil droplets) and an industrial decanter which separates the oil from the vegetation water through centrifugation. These processes generally tend to be less labor intensive and more efficient than the traditional method. However, these tend to be more energy intensive and may result in a loss of healthy polyphenols.
The “sansa” is used for a variety of purposes from being a source of heating fuel to being an ingredient for food such as “taralli”.
Next, the vegetation water collected from the pressing stage is left to decant in large stone basins in a process known as “affiorato”. Since oil and water are non-soluble, and oil has a lower density than water, the oil separates and floats up to the surface. This is collected using a special pan known as “oliarole”.
Traditionally olive oil is not filtered, so after the decantation process, the product is bottled immediately. Unfiltered olive oil is known as “Non Filtrato” in Italian. This oil is cloudy as it contains olive fruit particles suspended in the liquid. Some find this traditional non-filtered olive oil to be more flavorful, nutritious and rich in phenolic compounds (which decrease the shelf life of the oil and so must be consumed fresh).
Modern day, non-traditional olive oils may be filtered which results in a clearer oil free of olive pulp sediments which helps increase the shelf life of the oil and produces a more “sellable” oil. However, filtered olive oil may not be as flavorful or nutritious compared to unfiltered olive oil since some of those healthy phenolic compounds are removed.
Parmigiano Reggiano is one of Italy’s most famous “grana” cheeses (“grana’ means “grainy” in Italian) earning it the moniker, the “King of Cheeses”.
This is a hard, uniformly straw-colored, gratable cheese with a deep, rich flavor and a golden, oily, edible rind. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is traditionally made with fresh cow’s milk from grass-fed cows. Other “grana” cheese include “grana padano”.
Traditionally, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has been produced in northern Italy, in the areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese produced in these regions are considered to be the most authentic and under Italian law, only cheese from these regions are legally allowed to be labeled as “Parmigiano Reggiano”. This ancient product is recognized by the European Union as a D.O.P. product (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta” which is Italian for “Protected Destination of Origin”) and only Parmigiano Reggiano produced from producers located in these areas are allowed to carry the D.O.P. seal on their Parmigiano cheese.
Thus, the more widely and cheaply available “Parmesan Cheese” is not the authentic, artisanal “Parmigiano Reggiano”.
The first recorded reference to Parmigiano Reggiano dates back to 1344 and the second oldest reference to the cheese can be found in “The Decameron”, a 1353 collection of novellas written by 14th century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). In it, he mentions:
…and there was a whole mountain of Parmigiano cheese, all finely grated, on top of which stood people who were doing nothing but making macaroni and ravioli.
Artisan Parmigiano Reggiano cheese made using traditional recipes passed down through the centuries. Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is traditionally made only in specific regions from mid-April to mid-November.
Founded in the 18th century, Valserena is reportedly the oldest Parmigiano dairy in Italy, and one of the few “farmstead” producers (producers who manage the entire cycle of producing cheese from growing the grass to feed the cows, birthing and breeding of cows and the process of making aged cheese).
Managed by the Serra Family, the farm is located in Parma, in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna which is considered to be Italy’s food region, home to famous Italian delicacies such as artisanal Italian traditional balsamic vinegar (known in Italian as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”), prosciutto and of course, Parmigiano Regiano cheese.
Valserena, is a member of the Consorzio di Parmigiano Reggiano and is one of the few members of the “Consorzio di Sola Bruna”. Producers who are members of “Consorzio di Sola Bruna” (which literally translates into “Only Italian Brown Consortium”) guarantee that the milk for Parmigiano Reggiano produced by them comes only from a certain registered breed of Italian “Brown Cows” – referred to in Italian as “Solo di Bruna” which means “exclusively (from) brown” (cows). The brown cow was introduced to Italy over a century ago, possibly around 1870. Belonging to the Alpine family, milk from this breed of brown cows is relatively low-yield (compared to for instance the Friesian cow which is known as “Frisona” in Italian), however the milk is particularly rich with a higher protein (particularly casein, which is important for cheese making) and calcium content, and results in a relatively high yield of cheese. Additionally, the richness of the milk imparts a distinctive creaminess, aroma and flavor into the finished wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese which milk from other breeds of cows are not able to match. Its high protein and calcium content further amplifies its value, as apart from a rich flavor, it also offers a rich source of nourishment.
So prized is the milk from this Italian brown cow, that it is known in Italy as “white gold” (“oro bianco” in Italian) and the Parmigian Reggiano cheese produced exclusively using this “white gold” is referred to as “Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.P. di Sola Bruna”.
There are hundreds of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers in Italy, however only a handful produce their cheese exclusively using milk from this Italian brown cow.
Authentic, artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production is regulated by the “Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano” (“Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese”) which was founded in 1934. The consortium is comprised of artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers from northern Italy, specifically in the provinces of Parma, Regio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna.
The consortium works to protect the tradition, history and culture surrounding authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese by stipulating certain requirements.
The milk for Parmegiano Reggiano cheese must be obtained from cows fed only on grass grown on rich, fertile soil, or fed with hay obtained from the same area, produced through a traditional drying process (not fed with fermented fodder, known as “silage” such as “corn silage” which is usually cheaper but creates quality problems in the finished cheese).
Producers have to produce their cheese using artisanal methods that have remained unchanged for seven centuries
The cheese must be aged through natural means.
The ingredients used in producing the cheese must be 100% natural; there is zero-tolerance for artificial additives, such as flavorings, preservatives, coloring agents and other agents to conceal or rectify problems that arise during the cheese-making process.
Strict compliance of these rules are mandatory for members of the consortium and in doing so, they are accepted as producers of the finest and most authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Traditional Production Method of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese in Italy
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production in Italy has traditionally been an artisanal process (it is not a manufactured product) and it remains so to this day among northern Italy’s artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers which use traditional methods and recipes handed over several generations.
It begins with rich milk from cows fed with fodder that may be fresh or dried using a traditional drying process. Fermented fodder is not allowed to be fed. This milk is accepted to be richer, more flavorful and more nutritious compared to milk from cows fed with artificial feed. Italian brown cows produce highly-prized rich, flavorful milk which the more common Holstein-Freisean cow cannot match. Of Italy’s Parmigiano cheese producers, only a handful produce their cheese using milk from Italian brown cows.
The quality of the milk is the foundation of cheese-making and the best quality milk is imperative for a quality cheese. The fresher the milk, the better and thus full-cycle / farmstead cheese producers may have an advantage. If the milk is of substandard quality, problems are likely to arise during the ageing process. Since the Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese bans additives of any kind whatsoever to rectify or conceal such problems (which mass-produced, imitation cheese manufacturers may resort to), ensuring the quality of the milk is of paramount importance. Since only the freshest, raw milk is to be used for authentic Parmigiano cheese, it is usual for artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese-producers in northern Italy to work every single day, including Sundays and holidays, churning out cheese from fresh milk provided by their cows everyday.
The cows are milked in the evening and this unpasteurized milk is left to rest overnight. The next morning, the cream will have risen and the milk is skimmed off. This is a 100% natural method of producing skimmed milk. The cream is used to make butter. The skimmed milk is added to the whole milk from this morning’s milking. The two milks are combined in traditional copper cauldrons.
Natural, fermented whey (usually derived from the previous day’s cheese production) is added to the milk along with natural rennet which triggers the curdling process. The milk is cooked at a temperature of about 30–35 °C or 86 – 95 °F.
The curd is broken down by hand through long movements using a traditional whisk known as a “spino”. This is an enormous balloon whisk which traditionally was made with wood, although now they tend to be made with metal. This whisk helps break down the curds into miniscule granules, giving it a grainy texture.
Next, the temperature of the heat is raised to about 55 °C or 131 °F. This ultimately results a mass of cheese granules separated from the whey. This mass of granules are taken out and wrapped in cheese cloth. The cheesecloth bundle is lifted up and suspended over the cauldron by tying two ends of the cloth to two poles on either side of the cauldron. It is left to drain for a few minutes and then the cheesecloth is hoisted out of the copper cauldron and placed into circular wheel molds. The cheese wheels are left to rest for a few days.
The cheese wheels are then salted, through a wet-salting process where the cheese wheels are immersed in brine (a solution of water and sea salt) for about 20 days. The wheels are inspected and turned every day by an artisan cheesemaker.
After the salting process, the ageing process begins. The cheese wheels are laid on wooden boards, one wooden board over another, in a temperature and humidity-controlled warehouse or ageing room. As it ages, the cheese exterior naturally dries out over time, forming a hard, oily, perfectly edible rind.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is aged for a minimum 12 months. The cheaper, non-genuine, imitation products are often aged for less than that, sometimes just a few months. The longer it ages, the richer the flavor, the stronger the aroma, the harder the cheese and the more granular the texture. “Parmigiano Reggiano Fresco” (“fresco” = “fresh” in Italian) is aged for 12 – 14 months. “Parmigiano Reggiano Stagionato” (“Stagionato” = “Seasoned”) is aged for 22-24 months. “Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio” is aged for over 30 months.
During the ageing process, the cheese wheels are constantly under watch by the artisanal cheesemaker, who will inspect, brush and turn them every day.
The cheese is tested for quality by a panel of judges from the “Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano” (“Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese”). The testing process usually sees the judge “tapping” the cheese using a hammer and sometimes inserting a screw-needle into the cheese.
In the hammer test, various points of the cheese are tapped with a hammer (known in Italian as “martelletto”). The resulting sound is carefully listened to, and the crust is observed to see how it takes the blow of the hammer. This gives clues on the quality of the cheese encased within the rind and if there are any defects in the structure of the cheese. This process is akin to a doctor using a stethoscope to aid in diagnosing a patient.
The screw-needle test sees a long thin instrument, similar to a screw, inserted into the cheese and then taken out to obtain a minute sample of the cheese. The resistance of the cheese as the screw needle is inserted gives clues on the consistency of the cheese while the sample gives clues on the aroma, taste and degree of maturation.
If the cheese fails the test, the markings on the cheese rind typical of authentic, artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese will be scraped off. If the cheese passes the test, cheese will be sealed with the “Parmigiano Reggiano DOP” mark with the Consorzio’s logo. The cheese may be left for further ageing or may be taken out to be sold. If the cheese producer is a member of the “Consorzio di Sola Bruna” then their cheese will be sold as “Parmigiano Reggiano DOP di Sola Bruna”.
Various types of balsamic vinegars are available in the market, however, the most traditional and authentic balsamic vinegars hail from the Emilia Romagna region in Italy, specifically in the cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia, where the grapes have an optimum balance of sweetness and acidity, and the climate is most conducive to the balsamic vinegar ageing process.
These traditional balsamic vinegars (known in Italian as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”) are produced only with fresh grape juice (known as “grape must”) unlike other vinegars which have wine vinegar added in and sometimes caramel and coloring as well. Additionally, the aging period is no less than 12 years, unlike non-traditional balsamic vinegars which are aged for a much shorter period of time, sometimes just a few months.
Producers of traditional balsamic vinegar must be members of the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) which regulates traditional balsamic production.
Consequently, these traditional balsamic vinegars command a considerably higher price in the market and they can be identified by a legally approved bottle shape (which non-traditional balsamic vinegars are not allowed to use), as well as an official European Union certification: “D.O.P.” (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta” which is Italian for “Protected Destination of Origin”). So, for instance, a traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena aged for 12 years would carry the label “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, D.O.P., Affinato” while a traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia aged for 12 years would carry the label “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, D.O.P., Affinato”.
To carry the “D.O.P” certification, the entire process of producing traditional balsamic vinegar must take place in the region of origin; in the case of traditional balsamic vinegar, this is either Modena or Reggio Emilia (this includes the source of grapes which must also be grown in these areas, so for instance, cheaper grapes grown elsewhere are not allowed to be used).
This compares with bottles labeled “I.G.P” (“Indicazione Geografica Protetta” which is Italian for “Protected Geographical Indication”) which is stamped on bottles of balsamic vinegars that are processed in Modena and made with grapes varietals typical of Modena (Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana, Lambrusco, Montuni, Sangiovese, and Trebbiano). However, the grapes may have been grown in a locale other than Modena or Reggio Emilia.
“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Affinato” is aged for at least 12 years.
“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Extra Vecchio” (“Extra Vecchio” = “Extra Old”) is aged for a minimum 25 years.
“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Riserva Oro” (“Riserva Oro” = “Gold Reserve”) is aged for at least 100 years.
Traditional Production Method Of Balsamic Vinegar In Italy
Balsamic vinegar production in Italy has traditionally been an artisanal process which continues to this day using techniques, recipes and paraphernalia (such as wooden caskets) handed down over several generations of mostly small-scale producers. The process originated in Modena and was later adopted in the Reggio Emilia region. It first begins with the grapes. Only certain locally-grown grape varieties are used to make traditional balsamic vinegar with Trebbiano and Lambrusco being the most common. Other varieties are Ancellotta, Berzemino, Occhio di Gatto, Sauvignon and Sgavetta. These grape varietals were poor choices for making wine and so were put to good use by producing balsamic vinegar instead.
Late in the year during autumn, the grapes are harvested. Harvesting them as late as possible in the season allows the grapes to naturally produce a higher concentration of natural sugars. These freshly harvested grapes are processed into “grape must” (pressed grapes which includes seeds and skins). The pulp and skins are then filtered out and the grape juice is cooked for hours over a slow fire until it reduces to about half its original volume and turns into a brown hue. The exact time this requires depends on the size of the batch, the climate, humidity etc. The boiled down juice is then set aside to ferment in wooden barrels for a period ranging from a few weeks to a few years.
In winter, perhaps during the months of January or February, the process of making the vinegar begins. This is done through a “batteria” – five or more wooden caskets, decreasing in size. The caskets are crafted with particular kinds of wood. Seven types of approved wood are used namely oak, cherry, juniper, mulberry, chestnut, ash, acacia (the last two are not widely accepted and are not very common),
The type of wood greatly contributes to the flavor of the resulting vinegar. For instance vinegar aged in cherry wood caskets tends to have a sweeter flavor profile. Each wooden casket in the “batteria” is made with a different type of wood, which imparts a flavor to the vinegar different from the previous casket it fermented in. The blend of wood used to ferment the vinegar is very much a part of the producers’ secret recipe. Producers are legally given freedom to decide on the combination of wood for the “batteria” depending on the flavor and aroma the individual producer wishes to produce for their balsamic vinegar.
Each year, vinegar from the smallest casket is taken out and bottled. Next, the fermenting liquid from the second smallest casket is poured into the smallest casket and liquid from the third smallest casket is poured into the second smallest casket and so on. The fresh batch of fermented grape must is poured into the largest casket.
As the must ages, it gets increasingly concentrated as a result of the evaporation that takes place through the walls of the wooden caskets, ultimately resulting in a liquid with the thick, viscous, syrupy consistency and intensely rich flavor that traditional balsamic vinegar is famous for.
How long the vinegar sits in these antique caskets (some could be over 100 years old, the older the casket the better the flavor) varies from producer to producer, the method they use and the quality of the vinegar they intend to produce. The longer it sits, the more rich and intense the flavor, the more thick and viscous the consistency and the higher the price in the market.
The barrels are stored in attics where it would be influenced by external climactic changes. It is believed that the contrasts of heat from summer and cold from winter help the ageing process.
The final product is tested by a panel of judges from the consortium for quality and if it passed the test, it is bottled in legally approved bottles which are reserved exclusively for traditional balsamic vinegars, provided a government-issued registration number and sealed with a D.O.P label. If the vinegar fails the test, it may require further ageing and so is returned to the producer. The producer may return it to the wooden casket and re-submit to the consortium for testing which may be within the next year or after a few years. Or the producer may simply sell it off as a lower-grade “condimento”.
Authentic artisanal D.O.P. traditional balsamic vinegar is not as acidic and vinegary compared to commercial-grade balsamic vinegars. The word “balsamic” was derived from the word “balm” which referred to a soothing tonic (since the ancient Romans believed balsamic vinegar had therapeutic properties).
Guide to buying traditional balsamic vinegar
Look for the EU label “D.O.P.” (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta”)
Look for the word “tradizionale” on the bottle.
Look for a government-issued registration number.
Look at the ingredients list. It should only contain “grape must”. Nothing else.
Look at the bottle shape. Traditional balsamic vinegars from Modena are sold in 100 milliliter bottles with a “sphere and cube” design (designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro) while vinegar from Reggio Emilia are sold in bottles with a tulip design.
Frequently Asked Questions
HOW IS TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR USED?
Traditional balsamic vinegar is usually not used for cooking as this would destroy its rich flavor and nutrients. Depending on the flavor and aroma profile of the vinegar, it may be suited for ice cream, strawberries, cheese (particularly “Parmigiano Reggiano” cheese) or meats (such as lamb, venison), prosciutto and fish. Traditional balsamic vinegar aged in cherry wood caskets for instance, has a slightly sweet flavor and thus makes it suited for sweets and desserts such as ice cream, gelato and strawberries. Juniper vinegar is pungent, thus making it suitable for meats. Mulberry vinegar is fruity making it delicious with fruit cocktails. Traditional balsamic vinegar is of vastly superior quality compared to commercial balsamic vinegars, and thus usually just a few drops or a light drizzle would suffice.
WHY IS TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR SO MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE COMPARED TO OTHER TYPES?
Quality over quantity results in limited supply. Traditional balsamic vinegar is an artisan product, and only a stipulated quantity of high-quality balsamic vinegar is produced annually.
WHAT IS “CONDIMENTO”-GRADE BALSAMIC?
This is balsamic vinegar that was well-produced using traditional methods however it didn’t pass the consortium for a D.O.P. label and instead of returning the vinegar to the wooden casket, it is simply sold off as a lesser-grade “condimento”, commanding a substantially lower price than traditional balsamic vinegar with the D.O.P seal. Condimento vinegars are preferred for salads where olive oil and other ingredients are mixed in (Italians tend to enjoy traditional balsamic vinegar with minimal interference from other ingredients). However, there exist some “condimento”-grade balsamic vinegars that are simply commercially produced products that are of inferior quality.
HOW SHOULD TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR BE STORED?
Store balsamic vinegar in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight.
Like olive oil, balsamic vinegar does not require refrigeration. It could be stored at a temperature of between 4 – 30°C.