As the birthplace of traditional balsamic vinegar, visiting an acetaia (vinegar house) is a must in Emilia Romagna! Here’s what you need to know and my absolute favorite vinegar house in the region.
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Balsamic vinegar is a familiar ingredient to most of us. You can find it in every kitchen, both in the US and Italy. Here in Italy, balsamic and olive oil are the only salad dressings, so it gets used almost every day.
But trying a traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena is a whole other experience! If you’re planning a trip to central Italy, give yourself time to visit an acetaia.
Commercial vs Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
To officially be called balsamic vinegar from Italy, it must be made on a few hills around Modena. In Italy, you’ll see the designation as IGP. But even then, there are two kinds: the commercially manufactured stuff, which is what you’ll have in restaurants, supermarkets, and even in your own kitchen. This balsamic is good, but they use chemicals and flavorings to mimic the traditional process and skip the aging.
Then there’s the next level of balsamic vinegar, produced the old school way. In Italian, you’ll see this one called aceto balsamico tradizionale. This one takes years to make, so it’s precious. Traditional balsamic is thick, almost like syrup, but has a much sweeter and more complex flavor than commercially-made balsamic vinegar. It’s meant to be used sparingly, a few drops to finish a steak or pasta dish.
What Is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Actually?
Balsamic vinegar starts similarly to wine. Grapes are harvested and pressed. Then the material is cooked down and stored. After a few more detailed steps, the liquid is aged for decades in a series of barrels in descending sizes.
The different barrel sizes allow liquid to be taken from the larger and added to smaller to make up for evaporating liquid, which concentrates the flavor without sacrificing the aging process.
It sounds more complicated than it is, but the attention to detail is enormous! Families in the area have been passing down these processes for generations.
Acetaia San Matteo
Visiting a traditional vinegar house is a great way to learn more about this and get to taste the differences! It’ll also help you see why the real stuff has such a high price tag: typically, the price for a 110ml bottle starts at 90€. But after learning about it and tasting the real deal, I completely get it!
If you want to visit one, head to Acetaia San Matteo. It’s a small, family-run vinegar house just outside Modena. Call ahead to make an appointment, but they’re so flexible and open to visitors, and they’ll accommodate same-day guests unless they’re booked!
The tour is excellent. They explain the initial process – not unlike wine production – and then where it takes a sharp left turn by aging for years in vented barrels. Their vinegar is stored in their former family home, and the whole place is full of cute homey touches.
Sandra’s family has been doing this for decades, and the process is so deeply personal to her that her passion shines through the entire tour. The tastings are generous: trust me, you’ve never had anything like real balsamic!
I get that traditional balsamic vinegar is expensive. It’s not a budget purchase. But if you’re only using a little at a time, one bottle should last for years. It’s used sparingly, and the flavor is so intense that a few drops is all you need to add flavor. Italians typically drizzle it on parmesan cheese or finish a risotto with it.
It’s also worth noting that while the balsamic makes for an expensive souvenir, they also offer some products that aren’t technically traditional balsamic vinegar (because they haven’t been aged long enough to quality) but impart some of the same flavor for significantly less cost.
If you’re going to buy some traditional balsamic vinegar, buying it at a small, family-run spot like Acetaia San Matteo is 100% the way to go! Additionally, the tour & tasting was free after we purchased a few things. I don’t know if they’re always free, but I’m happy to buy some delicious souvenirs to offset their cost of sharing so much with us.
Choosing a balsamic vinegar
Like many of the great Italian foods, there are strict production standards that go earning the stamp of “official” balsamic vinegar. Any vinegar shop will mention the Consortium and how strictly the process is monitored, from the type of grapes used to the aging process.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is always sold in these small 100 ml (3 oz) glass jars, so that’s one easy way to tell if it’s legit. This isn’t the one you’re using to dress your salads – save the commercially-produced one for that!
Visiting a vinegar shop in a town like Modena or Bologna will allow you to try several vinegar houses’ versions at once, but I highly recommend actually heading to an acetaia to get a real feel for the process. And a small family-run place like San Matteo will give the best sense of how these families have been doing this for generations.
Sandra and her family have created an amazing way to learn about traditional balsamic vinegar and literally invite guests into their family home to taste it. Head to Acetaia San Matteo for an unforgettable balsamic vinegar experience!