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Black Gold: Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

And Le Batterie of Acetaia Sereni

“Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP has now become known as Black Gold.”

It all began with the union of two families in 1931: the wedding of Santina Montorsi and Celestino Sereni in the highlands of Modena brought the Aceto Balsamico production to life, which is still active today, four generations later, at Acetaia Sereni.

La batteria (literally “battery”, but a term used for the set of barrels containing balsamic vinegar) was a traditional wedding dowry for the wealthy and noble families in Emilia-Romagna. Including aceto balsamico in your marriage meant bringing a part of your family into the creation of a new one. Thanks to the longevity of the vinegar, if the married couple had offspring, their balsamic would be gifted again for their children’s weddings and so on and so on. 

Santina decided to grow grapes and increase her quantity of balsamic liter by liter every year, leading her son Attilio to eventually purchase more barrels. In 1982, it was Attilio’s son Pierluigi who launched the sales of the family’s balsamic vinegar and, along with his wife Elisabetta, began to steadily grow their production in the hills of Villabianca where the acetaia (vinegar farm) still stands. Decades later, Acetaia Sereni is still one of few in which the entire process unfolds on one estate: from the vendemmia (harvest) of their 15 hectares ofvineyards to aging to bottling of the final product.

In 1993, the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena was founded in order to regulate balsamic vinegar and to act as guardian of the product’s regulations. And the first ever bottle of DOP Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, sealed with the number 001 by Attilio Sereni, was produced here. The unopened bottle still rests in Acetaia Sereni’s gallery and today the consortium protects 51 balsamic vinegar producers. Out of all of them, Acetaia Sereni produces the most DOP vinegar.

Today, Pierluigi’s sons, Francesco and Umberto, explain that their parents’ marriage initiated a set of barrels labeled PIERLUIGI E ELISABETTA; when their younger sister was born, the FEDERICA batteria was created; both brothers have their own set of balsamic vinegar and the day they will have children, further batterie will be added to the family’s collection. 

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena can only begin or end with a family. Births and marriages are marked by the vinegar, a tangible representation of the connections between the people of Modena. Death, divorce or neglect are the main causes terminating a family’s production. 

Understandably, balsamico is a deeply ingrained aspect of Modenese culture–both in the form of pride and jealousy. The Modenesi vigorously worked to have aceto balsamico remain as local as possible, and it wasn’t until the 80s that the Modenesi actually started selling the two types of balsamic. (The product had been used in Modenese homes or for gifting/marriage purposes for several centuries!)

The Two Types of Balsamic Vinegar

So what are these two types and how do they differ? 

The first is Balsamic Vinegar IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the second one is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP (Protected Designation of Origin).

Both of these products can only be produced in the region of Modena in order to be granted their labels by the Consortium. Acetaia Sereni uses only Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, which are collected once a year throughout Vendemmia (which begins in the last week of August and lasts until the end of September).

The climatic conditions of Modena and its province play an essential role in the life and development of balsamic vinegar. Acetaias are never thermally-regulated: the attics where the barrels are stored reach hot temperatures in the summer and freezing ones in winter. With the constant fresh air drifting over from the Panaro river, these conditions enable the perfect atmosphere in which to mature the vinegar.

Balsamic Vinegar IGP is made out of wine vinegar and cooked grape juice and is aged in one big barrel for a minimum of 60 days. Its taste is acidic and fruity, and its consistency is more liquid than the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. Francesco elaborates that the IGP balsamic is common for everyday use. The costs range from €7.00 to €25.00 for a 250ml bottle depending on the aging (60 days up to 10 years) characteristics.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP is made out of mosto cotto, the cooked must of Trebbiano grapes, and is acidified/fermented in garrets. Over the course of time, the vinegar is transferred from barrel to barrel for a minimum of 12 years and a maximum of 25. These valuable barrels are all made out of different woods, including oak, chestnut, juniper, acacia, ash, mulberry and cherry. As a result, the vinegar’s consistency is far thicker and its taste more complex with distinctive notes of spices. The purchasing cost is much higher than the IGP variety and starts at €57.00 for a 100ml. The same amount of liquid might even cost more than €100 depending on its age.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena must be bottled in the 100ml bulb-shaped Giugaro bottle, named after its creator, Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugaro. Every wax-sealed bottle is identifiable by its unique serial number approved by the Consorzio.

“Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP has now become known as Black Gold,” explains Francesco, “because of its dark color and its cost in both time and money.” While the main attractions for tourism in Emilia-Romagna, also known as the Motor Valley, remain fast cars and slow food, the fascinating world of balsamic vinegar is still to be discovered by many.

How to Use Balsamic Vinegar of Modena like Emiliani

While we all know how to use some balsamic vinegar in a salad dressing and some may buy the artificial balsamic glaze to decorate their plates, Umberto, who runs the Sereni family’s agriturismo, explains that there is a far wider range of possible pairings.

Antipasti (Starters)

Gnocco Fritto with Prosciutto Crudo – A typical Emilian starter consisting of Gnocco, a soft and puffy fried dough, slightly resembling a fried dumpling, served with Prosciutto Crudo. A few drops of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar completes this delicious starter.

Bresaola – Add Parmigiano Reggiano flakes and arugula, then top with a splash of DOP balsamic vinegar.

Pinzimonio – A dish of chopped raw vegetable sticks, simply served with a ramekin filled with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar IGP.

I Primi (Pasta / Risotto)

As Emilia-Romagna is also known as the land of pasta, Umberto always adds Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP to their seasonal Tortelloni Sereni–cheesemaker’s ricotta stuffed in pasta, thrown into a pan of butter and sage, topped with pancetta and pistachios. In autumn, the tortelloni is filled with pumpkin, a perfect pairing for balsamic.

Tortellini – On the other hand, are much smaller in size and filled with different kinds of meat and Parmesan cheese. Though eaten in brodo (chicken broth) during colder days, the dish is eaten by true Modenesi throughout the entire year. The Modenese version, Tortellini in Crema di Parmigiano, soaks them in a lush cheesy cream coated with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and when in season, black truffle peels.

La Carne (Meat)

Meat lovers can enjoy their balsamic over grilled beef or pork filets. Another typical pairing eaten in Emilia-Romagna is with Bolliti–boiled meat used for bone broth after it’s been cooked for hours. The balsamic creates a bittersweet contrast to the meat’s soft texture. Last but not least, a traditional meal from Romagna: Bruciatini–Radicchio (red lettuce) and crispy pancetta (bacon). 

Dolci (Desserts)

Balsamic vinegar is not only great for savory dishes! Try balsamic with some strawberries or apricots. Acetaia Sereni highly recommends it splashed over ice cream (as they serve it in their restaurants)! The best flavors for pairing are vanilla, crema and fior di latte (milk).

Miscellaneous

Cheese – Ooze a few drops on warm ricotta cheese or Parmigiano Reggiano. The latter is a delicacy that requires years of work and preparation considering that Parmigiano Reggiano needs to be aged at least 24 months and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar at least 12 years.

Seasonal Vegetables and Fungi – Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP with asparagus or porcini mushrooms create incredible combos. Furthermore, a variety of black truffle menus, which regularly come into season in November and last until March, can be embellished with Traditional Balsamic Vinegar.

Breakfast Spread it over your scrambled or cooked eggs. Another amazing combination includes avocado on sourdough toast, pomodorini (cherry tomatoes) and a splash of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP. For vegans, a tofu scramble is recommended as a perfect alternative.

Digestive Powers

Balsamic vinegar can simply be enjoyed on a spoon (but please note that the spoon must be made out of ceramic or plastic–under no circumstances metal as it will ruin the taste!). Having a spoon after your meal is considered a moment of meditation and pure indulgence for the people of Modena. Furthermore, it is said to help your digestion and promote gut health. Luciano Pavarotti swore by balsamic vinegar and would drink a spoonful before his concerts to soothe his vocal cords.

Irving Penn (1917-2009) - Luciano

Acetaia Sereni