The Reggio Emilia region of Italy is a perfect stop for a foodie to indulge in two famous Italian products. Visiting a parmesan cheese factory in Parma and a balsamic vinegar tour in Modena. A long time ago I read about the fascinating and lengthy process of making authentic balsamic vinegar. Since then I have wanted to visit a balsamic cellar and see the ageing barrels. This was on my list of must-dos in Italy. We stopped in this area after our stay in Siena, on our way to Venice.
Authentic balsamic is only produced in the area of Modena with its unique micro-climate. You can arrange a balsamic vinegar tour in Modena by contacting the producers directly or booking with a tour operator. Some tours visit parmesan cheese and vinegar producers in one day. We did this independently but a tour would be convenient if you don’t have your own transport. It didn’t seem like these places were easily accessible by public transport being outside the towns and cities.
We decided to visit Antica Acetaia Bompana. They have great reviews of trip advisor. A family-owned and run business, Lara welcomed us warmly despite our lack of booking. We arrived at the same time as a group of French visitors. Lara was kind enough to conduct the tour in both French and English so we could all follow.
Crafting Balsamic Vinegar
L wrote some comprehensive notes in his diary about the balsamic vinegar tour in Modena. Although now he tells me what he remembers the most is the overpowering smell of the vinegar in the attic! From L’s diary: We learnt about vinegar making. They put the cooked grape juice, called most, into barrels and age it. The barrels sometimes leak because of the humidity, the wood contracts and expands. They put a cloth over a hole in the barrel so the vinegar can breathe and some evaporates.
The vinegar is put into barrels of different sizes, each one smaller than the previous. During the year fermentation, concentration, some leaking and absorbing into the wood occurs. Most of the vinegar reduction is due to evaporation. After a year, the producer tops up the smallest barrel with vinegar from the next sized barrel and so on to the largest barrel. They fill the final largest barrel with the current year’s most.
After 12 years the first Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena Dop is ready. The family takes just a few bottles from the smallest barrel and continues the refilling process. The refilling happens every year for the life of the barrel, which may continue long after the current producer’s lifetime.
Some of the barrels we saw were quite delicate and leaked. Rather than risk a repair which might break them all together, the producer accepted a certain amount of leaking. You can see in the pictures some barrels with a saucer underneath to catch these leaks! The old barrels were too valuable to risk losing.
Their oldest barrel has been used continuously since 1850!
Balsamic Vinegar Tour Modena – Antica Acetaia Bompana
The tour with Lara was about 20 minutes upstairs in the attic where she explained the production process. Then downstairs to their tasting room and shop. Lara invited us to try a variety of aged vinegars and condiments. The tour and tasting are free. A rare opportunity to talk directly with a member of this passionate family of artisans.
I found it interesting that each daughter of the family had a series of barrels started when they were babies. To eventually become their dowry. An investment of their own that they could choose how to manage when they were older. To produce more younger vinegar and condiments, or to age for longer to produce a lesser quantity of the highly prized and valuable Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena Extravecchio Dop ( aged and refined for a minimum of 25 years).
We purchased some Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena Dop. This vinegar must be a minimum of 12 years old. In fact the original barrel is often much older. The vinegar is never given an age as it is an accumulation of many years. Each barrel is registered and numbered. All vinegar is tested and tasted by the certifying body before it can be sold as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena Dop.
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Accommodation in Modena
We stayed at an agri-turismo outside Modena for 3 nights. We’d been looking forward to our stay on a working vineyard and we weren’t disappointed. The apartment was in a building that had previously been a monastery. It was full of character with huge beams and thick walls to keep the rooms warm in the summer heat.
At San Polo Agri-turismo they produce wines specific to the local area called Lambrusco. They also make some balsamic vinegar and condiments. The owner and host greeted us warmly and introduced us to his dog (an instant hit with the kids). He showed us the winery with a brief explanation of their production methods, then invited us to choose a bottle of wine as a welcome gift. We chose a Lambrusco frizzante (slightly sparkling) red wine.
When our host heard we had travelled from New Zealand, he gifted us a bottle of his balsamic condiment. Then he shared with us his family’s favourite recipes for using balsamic. When we left after 3 days we shared with him a family recipe of ours to try.
Camping is awesome and we meet families from all over Europe. But farm-stays provide unique opportunities to meet local people passionate about sharing their home and traditions with us. If we only camped or stayed in generic hotels, we would have missed out on our best experiences of the trip. To book San Polo Agri-turismo click on the image below.
Balsamic Recipes from San Polo
A sauce to serve with vegetables:
Balsamic, olive oil, garlic, salted capers and thyme.
A sauce to serve with meat:
Remove the thyme and replace with parsley, add diced carrot.