You’ve heard about wine tastings and beer tastings, but a vinegar tasting? Apparently this is a real thing. The town of Modena, Italy is famous for its balsamic vinegar, and there are several places where you can go to taste the different varieties. Andy and I decided to give it a try while we were staying in Bologna, and it was quite an interesting experience.
This is not your normal table vinegar
This balsamic vinegar is some pretty special stuff. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is a name that is heavily protected by the Italian Denominazione di origine protetta, or the DOP. It’s a protected designation of origin that sets up strict rules for how the vinegar must be produced in order to be called Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Certain types of grapes, a specific process, strict quality checks. Even the bottle it comes in is trademarked, and the producers themselves are not allowed to do the bottling.
The traditional balsamic vinegar comes in two major types: those that have been aged for 12 years or more, and those that have been aged 25 years or more. The vinegar is aged in barrels made from different types of wood, and the types are chosen for the flavor they add to the vinegar. Throughout its aging process, portions of it are transferred from one barrel to the next. We got an explanation of the percentages, but to me it was complicated math. As the vinegar ages, it gets thicker and thicker.
I am not a foodie
I like food, but I don’t really need anything fancy. I often drink my juice out of the carton, I’ve been known to put ketchup on steak, and if it used to live in the water, there’s a 95% chance I won’t want to eat it. So taste testing fancy vinegar that sells for 45 to 200 euros per tiny bottle was an interesting experience for me.
The woman hosting us handed out plastic spoons to me, Andy and another couple. “Ah, is this the traditional plastic spoon?” Andy asked with his usual sarcasm. The joke went over her head, but she explained how spoons made from certain materials can greatly affect the taste of the vinegar. I guess plastic is fairly neutral, and hey, no washing for them to do afterwards!
Different perspectives on vinegar
Andy and I got to try several different vinegars, some of the 12 years and up type, some of the 25 years and up. For each one, our host explained to us how long it had been aged and what types of wood were used for the barrels. Some tasted really strong, some were a little easier on my tongue, and I could definitely tell that each one was different from the one before it. It was much more interesting than I ever thought vinegar could be. But that’s about where my taste buds stopped.
The couple sitting across the table from us owns an expensive restaurant somewhere near 6th Avenue in New York City, and they kept saying things like, “I can really taste the juniper” and “oh, that one has a nice finish.” I don’t think I could ever identify what certain kinds of wood taste like. These people certainly had more taste buds and excitement for food than I do.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is an old family tradition in Modena. When our host started telling us about vinegar that was started when she was born, I could see the pride in her face and hear it in her voice. This was her vinegar. That’s was when I really knew the traditional balsamic vinegar is on a completely different level. I’m not sure I could ever have that much passion about vinegar.
Whether you think vinegar is just vinegar, or you have sensitive taste buds that can pick out flavors of oak and cherry wood, tasting Traditional Balsamic Vinegar in Modena is definitely a unique experience. I doubt I’ll be purchasing one of those expensive bottles anytime soon, but I had a good time learning about a centuries old tradition.