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Balsamic vinegar’s origins are obscure. Some assert they go back to the Roman Empire with fermentation of the grape must sapa. Others believe that, like butter, it may have existed but its true development came during the Middle Ages. The term ‘balsamic’ itself comes from the Italian name for the vinegar, aceto balsamico, where balsamico refers to something with healing powers, almost like an elixir (it shares a root word with ‘balm’). Vinegar was recommended in many Italian medical manuals—just like those of their Roman ancestors. Stories abounded as well. Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Roderic Borgia who would later become Pope Alexander VI, was rumored to bathe in vinegar daily similar to the legend of Helen of Troy.
Balsamic vinegar, unlike most vinegars in Europe, is not made directly from wine but rather from grape must, a concentrated syrup made from boiled down grape juice in order to concentrate the sugars. Balsamic vinegars are also unique in that their development was confined primarily to the regions of Modena and Reggio Emilia. How they evolved though is uncertain. There are many methods of making balsamic and though they follow a general pattern, there does not seem to be a recognizable ‘original’.
In the Middle Ages, balsamic vinegar (or its precursor since the balsamic term had not come into usage) was made by fermenting grape must in barrels for a substantial period of time, often years. The first written reference to this vinegar is in the twelfth century by the monk Donzio of Canossa in his poem Acta Comitissae Mathildis or Vita Mathildis. The poem describes an event in the year 1046 when Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor, was traveling from his home in Bavaria through Italy to be crowned Emperor by Pope Clement II.
During his transit, the prince of the Duchy of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Count Bonifacio III presented Emperor Henry with a gift of the local vinegar. The term balsamic, however, appeared nowhere in the poem. Unlike Orléans vinegar that became widely known and mass produced, balsamic vinegar would continue to be a condiment of the local elites until the 19th century. Its popularity would later soar in the 20th century to give it a global appeal and make Italy the leading exporter of vinegar in the world.
Scholars of balsamic vinegar note that documentation about it is very scarce and not specific up until the end of the 16th century. The first solid record of a special vinegar from the region of Modena and Reggio Emilia was recorded when in 1598, Modena became the capital of the Duchy of Modena and Reggio Emmilia and the Duke, Cesare d‘Este and his family moved to Modena. There they encountered a vinegar that was made primarily in the homes of local residents. Recognizing it as a premium vinegar and the best they had ever tasted, the Duke immediately set up a vinegar cellar (acetaia) at his residence. The vinegar was given to guests and used at banquets and widely became known as “the Duke’s Vinegar.”
It was not until 1747 though that the term “balsamic vinegar” is first used in reference to vinegar in the inventory of the then reigning Duke. The Duke’s Vinegar henceforth became increasingly referred to as balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar became the gift of choice for the nobility of Europe. The ruling Este family of the Duchy gave bottles of balsamic vinegar to the greatest leaders of the time including visiting statesmen from Russia and Francis II in 1792 in honor of his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor.
Balsamic vinegar would become more widely known, however. A famous agricultural manual published at the end of the eighteenth century by Hungarian scientist and agronomist Ludwig (Ljudevit) Mitterpacher von Mitterburg called Elements of Agriculture explicitly mentions the vinegar of Modena and its production process.
While balsamic was not being mass produced, its craft production was becoming even more sophisticated. It would be one of the most detailed vinegar making processes in the world. Mitterburg in his Elements lists a special step for how balsamic is made after the grape must is prepared:
“..then the must is divided into separate tubs, and a heated tile is put into each one. After that, the treated must is transferred into casks, where after one year it becomes vinegar, and can be transferred through the sequence of barrels.”
The process of sequential fermentation through a sequence of barrels is known as rincalzo. The group of barrels for fermentation and aging is known as the batteria or battery. The batteria is a sequence of typically five to six sequentially smaller barrels, often of different woods. Each year, portions of the vinegar is transferred between barrels—largest to smallest—over time for fermentation and aging. The entire amount of each barrel is not transferred. Therefore , each barrel has a mixture of vinegars from different years that provide a complex aging process and balsamic’s unique character. Each barrel can hold the vinegar for a year or more and a sequence of five or more barrels can have aging last from five years to a decade or more. The sequence of barrels allows both the concentration of the vinegar and its sugars but also allows longer term fermentation of complex sugar compounds that other vinegars do not allow for.
- A balsamic battery
At the end of the eighteenth century, balsamic was still a high priced and rare commodity. It was sometimes referred to as the “Noble’s Vinegar” in comparison to the “Commoner’s Vinegar” which was often plain wine vinegar. In the end, balsamic would become a commercial commodity and its niche status would change forever. Ironically, the event that would precipitate this was the same the jolted the world of the Orléans vinaigriers: the French Revolution.
In the case of balsamic, the Revolution arrived with the bayonets of Napoleon’s troops when he invaded Modena in 1796. The reigning Duke of the Este family, Ercole III, fled to Venice taking several very expensive barrels of balsamic with him. The French troops treated the palaces of the nobility in Modena the way they were treated in other areas—stripped bare and sold off for profit. The casks of vinegar from the ducal acetaia were no exception.
As brazen as this act was, it spread the vinegar far and wide and began the widespread commercial market that balsamic would create. Balsamic vinegar became regularly referred to as such in the 19th century. Again, similar to the experience of Orléans, with the rising popularity of the vinegar came frauds and counterfeits. This was made worse by balsamic’s limited production base and long production time in years. This became a widespread practice. Scholars in Modena have preserved copies of recipes from the 19th century deliberately describing how to make “artificial balsamic vinegar” to sell into the marketplace.
Even after this incident, which informed the world of balsamic vinegar, balsamic vinegar was still not aggressively marketed by its makers. Balsamic was considered more as a family secret or heirloom by either the noble houses that bought it or the acetaia that made it. Recipes were usually carefully guarded secrets.
While many recipes, genuine and fraudulent, had circulated for several decades, a set of genuine recipes became famous for allowing a wider public to understand the balsamic making process. Francesco Aggazzotti was a lawyer as well as agronomist in Modena and around 1860 wrote down a detailed recipe for making balsamic vinegar using cooked grape must. His recipes were spread through a series of three letters: two for a friend, and one for an enologist in Alessandria.
- A portrait of Francesco Agazzotti
In addition, Fausto Sestini, a chemist from Florence, wrote a book in 1863 Sopra gli aceti balsamici del modenese (Concerning the balsamic vinegars of Modena). This describes the balsamic vinegar of Modena and many aspects of its processes though some of his information (such as barrels maturing for centuries) cannot be correct.
Thus the process of making balsamic vinegar became well known and practiced. Around the Western world, balsamic became known as a specialty vinegar for those with exquisite palates. Its popularity would steadily increase, still primarily in Italy, in the early decades of the 20th century. However, outside of Italy one would still rarely hear of balsamic outside of the ravings of true vinegar connoisseurs or on the shelves of stores that brought in specialty imports from Italy.
The true growth of balsamic, from a niche player to a global phenomenon would start in the late 1970s. The catalyst was not necessarily gastronomy but rather the beginning of the decline of manufacturing in the region. At the end of the 1970s industrialists in Modena wanted to diversify from light engineering ceramics, and clothing. In addition, the vineyards were producing surpluses of wine which they believed would be advantageous to use in vinegar production.
Thus, the modern balsamic vinegar industry began to be born. A true measure of the growth of the industry is that as late as 1987, only 3,000 bottles of balsamic vinegar were being produced per year. By 2002, that number had become 100,000 bottles. This represented an average annual growth rate of 26% over a fifteen year period. While domestic demand has steadily increased, export has been the largest driver with about 70% of all balsamic vinegar produced destined for export. Largely because of balsamic vinegar, Italy is the largest vinegar exporter in the world, in 2015 accounting for almost 50% of exports in the $563 million global vinegar export market.
In the next post, we will discuss in detail how balsamic vinegar is made and how to differentiate the different types
See part II on the types of balsamic vinegar.
Most info for this article was derived from:
Giudici, Paolo, Federico Lemmetti, and Stefano Mazza. Balsamic vinegars: tradition, technology, trade. “Chapter 2: History of Balsamic Vinegar”, Cham: Springer, 2015.
Information about the latter day development of balsamic:
Mattia, Giovanni. “Balsamic vinegar of Modena: From product to market value: competitive strategy of a typical Italian product.” British Food Journal 106, no. 10/11 (2004): 722-745.