As part of our gastronomic tour of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy we were treated to a visit to La Ca dal Non – (Grandfather’s House) which has been producing Balsamic Vinegar in Modena since 1883.

The house is still home to several generations of family, as well as the base for an impressive traditional balsamic vinegar operation.

The first thing you must do is forget everything you thought you knew about balsamic vinegar, because the stuff we all buy in the local supermarkets couldn’t be further removed from the “traditional” method balsamic, which can only be made from grapes harvested in Modena, naturally fermented and acetified, and then aged for at least 12 years in barrels, following a carefully defined process.

To put it into perspective, only around 10,000 litres of the good stuff are produced annually, compared to 97 million litres of the “ordinary” balsamic vinegar. I can’t begin to describe the difference in taste to you, but there is no comparison between the two products.

The Process

The process for making balsamic is fascinating. First the grapes are pressed, and then they are cooked for several hours to reduce the volume of liquid and to produce a thick, naturally sugared liquid. And then the magic begins!

A “battery” of barrels of decreasing size is started and the natural process of vinegarisation begins. The liquid is put into the first barrel and left for a year to mature and decrease in volume. During the course of a year (and this is why the location of Modena, with it’s widely varying seasonal temperatures is important,) the vinegar goes through different stages of fermentation and vinegarisation as the natural yeast sleeps and wakes up according to the ambient temperature.

Every year, each barrel in a series is topped up from the previous barrel, so moves a little closer to the finished product. Balsamic for bottling is only taken from the final barrel, and must be aged for at least 12 years, and in many cases for much longer. Experts will taste and blend from the final barrels when it comes to bottling time, as their characteristics can vary widely.

Most families in Modena have their own batteries of barrels for private use – they last generations, and effectively never “end,” as the product within them is constantly being topped up and moved on.

The Taste

It’s almost impossible to describe the taste – it’s rich, deep, amazingly complex, and as I said before, and nothing like the balsamic you have tried in the past. Yes, it complements salads beautifully, but it brings a real “zing” to pretty much anything from pizza to ice cream (really!) and is delicious on any cheese.  We have both the 12 and 18 year old versions at home and the more aged one is more resinous and has a longer lasting after taste.

La Ca dal Non

Our tour was conducted by Mariangela, grand daughter of the founder, and a passionate and very humorous presenter. She took us through a presentation which explained the process, and then we tasted the vinegars.

At La Ca dal Non, they also make Saba and a product they have named Balsamosaba, which is a sort of hybrid saba / balsamic. Saba is basically the cooked grape juice and was used extensively by The Romans as a sweetener – long before sugar was available. It’s delicious on ricotta cheese, ice cream and in cocktails. There are two versions of the Balsamosaba, which are a sweet and sour condiment – I loved it on pizza.

After the tasting, we were taken to the barrel room, and as you can see from the images, there are loads of batteries, including one dating back to 1915 and started by grand dad himself. The smell in the room was divine! Barrels are made from various wood and they do have some impact the flavour. There is one barrel used which is made from Juniper wood.

If you are ever in Modena, I urge you to book a visit to La Ca dal Non, and I also highly recommend visiting your local delicatessen and buying a bottle of “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena,” and at least 12 years aged. The key word is “traditional.”