When we speak of the elixir of love, we are not speaking of the commercial product readily available in supermarkets, but of that treasured traditional balsamic vinegar that has aged by moving from barrel to barrel layering tastes and aromas as it ages. And age it does - for as many as fifty to seventy years in barrels that have been handed down from one generation to another.
This is a royal foodstuff, once appearing on noble tables set in splendor, and its price reflects its pedigree, but is worth more than gold or diamonds for what else can be called the elixir of love.And since no love is greater than the love for one's offspring, in Modena it is said that "One generation makes balsamico for the next." It is not uncommon for a barrel of balsamic vinegar to be started under the watchful eyes of one who will never taste the results.
Cupid may shoot his arrows at the wong person, but the elixir of love is potent and must not be treated casually. The production of traditional balsamic vinegar is regulated by the "Consorteria dell'Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena." They have safeguarded the production of this rare product that comes only from the lands of Emilia-Romagna. The vinegar must be certified and approved before it is released to the market.
After critical tasting by five experts, the traditional balsamic vinegar is bottled in a small bulbous bottle which is also a tradition and each producer must use an identical bottle. As the final note, the seal of the Consorzio is placed on the bottle with the Italian government designation of D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). Only about 3,000 gallons are produced each year.
The rituals of tasting are specific and are followed scrupulously. The panel members usually sit apart and are separated by privacy panels. Each one is given a candle and a ceramic spoon, as well as bread and water to clear the palate between tastings, and finally each has a checklist. Each taster will perform 90 tests which deal with the visual aspect of the balsamic vinegar, its aroma and its flavor. Only when each taster has finished and scored his results will the group have a discussion of each barrel and determine its fate. If a barrel gets enough points, it is accepted and is prepared to be bottled under the watchful, protective eyes of the Consortium. Once bottled, it is labeled, numbered and assigned a colored cap. In a coronation of sorts, a twelve year old Balsamic vinegar is awarded a silver cap, while twenty-five year old vinegar is given the highest honor - a gold cap. To protect the product even further, the numbers are recorded for tracking. No producer can sell more than what he has registered.
The word balsamic has its origin in balsam or balm, and the vinegar was once believed to have medicinal and calming properties. It was believed to be a miracle cure for everything from a sore throat to labor pains and was used externally on the skin. In 1630, a plague hit Italy. The Duke of Modena remained at home unless he was accompanied by a keg of balsamic vinegar to purify the air around him. Lucrezia Borgia found it helpful during childbirth. Rossini claimed that balsamic vinegar cured scurvy and restored him to "health and tranquility."
History of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar - The Royal and the Romantic
Ordinary vinegar can be traced back to ancient times when fermented grapes, otherwise known as wine, were allowed to acidify by exposure to air. Vinegar was a powerful preservative in pre-refrigeration days, and was also used to disinfect wounds. But Balsamic vinegar descends from another lineage, that of cooked must. Also an ancient practice must is made by cooking grapes before they ferment, and the resulting must (mosto) was used a a sweetener and a condiment for other foods. The early food writer, Apicio, in his work De Re Coquinaria described different kinds of cooked must, depending on different features and ways of preparation, but all of them found their way into cooked food. Must was given to the legionaries as a provision to improve the water they drank during military campaigns.
The archeological discovery of amphorae in and around Modena indicate that the cultivation of vines the fertile soil of the area was an early development. There are no records of the discovery and development of balsamic vinegar and no name was applied. It was called simply "aceto alla modenese" or vinegar Modenese style. The first written documentation appears in the registry of the Estense family who ruled first Ferrara and then Modena. Again, no name is given, however a guest in the court of Francesco I D'Este exclaimed "...but this is a balsam."
The first written record we have appeared in 1046. On this occasion, Emperor Henry III was preparing for his coronation, and requested a gift. Disdaining a golden scepter or jewel studded crown, Henry asked Bonifacio di Canossa for a barrel of balsamic vinegar. So important was this barrel of balsamic vinegar that Bonifacio ordered it sent in a special keg decorated with designs in silver. Two white oxen drew the cart which held this precious and regal gift. Continuing the royal tradition, In 1792, a flask of balsamic vinegar was another coronation gift, this time from Duke Ercole III to Francis I of Austria. To its other qualities, we can consider balsamic vinegar to be the gift of diplomacy.
Through the centuries that ensued, balsamic vinegar was most frequently mentioned in the wills of its creators. We can imagine the zeal with which the young curried favor of the old to be the inheritor of the valued barrels; we can imagine family feuds breaking out upon the reading of such a will.
Not only were the barrels themselves treasured, so also were the secrets of its production. In 1839, Count Giorgio Callesio described the manner of production in the household of a Count Salimbeni. Another letter dated 1861 from the head of the Aggazzotti family described other secrets of its production. Today the secrets are jealously guarded.