Food & Drink History Travel

UMAMI IN MODENA – Balsamic Vinegar Tasting

Balsamic vinegar


Balsamic vinegar tasting

One cold December Sunday, while enjoying a roaring fire and a cup of tea, Alvis exclaimed to me, ‘Holy Cow!  The Rolling Stones are going on tour! Again.’  ‘What?’, I exclaimed.  ‘Really?’  ‘A world tour?  A stadium world tour?’

As he perused the concert website, he started reaming off the cities already part of the No Filter Tour, and he stopped at Lucca, Italy.  ‘Wanna go?’, he asked me.  ‘Hell yeah!’ I said.

The next few hours were spent trying to a) buy the tickets   b) book a hotel room in Lucca  and c) research that part of Italy for sights to see along the way. Turns out, the ticket purchasing was the easy part.  Booking a hotel room proved to be interesting with Airbnb hosts accepting and then declining Al’s requests, as they received a guest reservation request offering to pay  more.  My travel research of this part of Italy was also proving to be a gargantuan task, given all of the interesting, historic, scenic, delicious and fun things to see and do. 

After contacting some friends in Toronto and Holland and Latvia, a fun group of friends planned to join us in Lucca to see the Stones.

Lucca’s location in Tuscany was one good reason to explore the Toscana area and points south like Florence, Siena and San Gimignano.  Its proximity to the coast lent to the idea of explorng the seaside, passing through Pisa, with its Leaning Tower. Choices, choices, choices.

After much consideration, research and planning, the focal point of this trip, culminating in the Stones concert in Lucca, was the area of ……  Modena…..then Cinque Terre……. a golf day in Tuscany……biking from Lucca to Pisa…..rock and roll in Lucca.  With so much to see and do, our itinerary became absolutely jammed.

Day One:

Depart Istria, Croatia early in the morning and drive to the Modenese country side.

Casa Nora

Stop One – Approximately noon. The Luciano Pavarotti museum.  Check out this blog post here: 

Luciano Pavarotti

Stop Two – Around 2:30 pm – A Tour of a traditional balsamic vinegar producer at the Acetaia  of the Villa San Donnino, followed by a tasting.

Villa San Donnino


Olive oil & Balsamic vinegar

Stop Two – Around 4 pm – A tour of a parmigiano Reggiano dairy  called  ‘4 Madonne Caseificio Dell Emilia’, followed by a tasting.

Villa San Donnino


Parmigiano Reggiano

Stop Three – Dinner at Massimo Bottura’s restaurant (NOT the three Michelin starred Osteria Francescana…..although that would have been heavenly…..) called ‘Franceschetta 58’

Day Two:

Stop One:  Tour of the Ferrari museum

Ferrari Museum

Stop Two:  Test driving a Ferrari

Ferrari logo

Stop Three:  Lunch, and then hitting the road to drive to La Spezzia

Day Three:  Hiking a part of Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

Day Four: Golfing in Tuscany

Toscana Golf

Day Five:  Arrival in Lucca, biking to Pisa, Rolling Stones concert

Rolling Stones logo

Day Six:  Drive back to Istria, Croatia

Although the trip was relatively short, the amount of information that we learned and the sheer volume of photos that I accumulated, made it impossible to condense into one blog post.  For this reason, I have divided the trip into four parts.  Part One was the blog about the Luciano Pavarotti museum, which I have already posted.  Check it out here:

This post is called  ‘Umami in Modena – Balsamic Vinegar tasting’

Definition of Umami:



Located in the Emilia Romagna area of northern Italy, near the Po river valley and the Appenine Mountains, Modena sits on some of the most fertile parts of Italy, thanks in part to the mitigating effect that the Adriatic Sea has on its climate.

Other cities of note in this area include Parma, famous for its ham or prosciutto as well as the cheese  – Parmigiano Reggiano;  and Bologna – the capital of this region.

Modena and its surrounding area is notable for a long list of awesomeness, including the birthplace of the Ferrari, the birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti, the home of Osteria Francescana – the world’s best restaurant as rated by Michelin in 2016, home to both Lamborghini and Maserati, as well as being the traditional area of real balsamic vinegar production.

Part 1 – Balsamic vinegar tasting

If Italy were a meal, Modena would be the main course.  Unknown

Legal balsamico area

Living in Toronto for many years, when at the grocery store, I would always pride myself by buying the balsamic vinegar that said ‘Balsamic vinegar of Modena’ on the label, thinking that I was supporting some small balsamic vinegar producer in some far off place in or near Modena…..   I couldn’t have been more wrong!  In fact, the stuff that I was buying is not even considered to be real balsamic vinegar…..

During the tour of the Villa San Donnino Acetaia, a producer of traditional balsamic vinegar in Modena, our guide cleared up this distinction early on.

Acetaia sign

Here are the facts:

The balsamic vinegar that you can buy in your grocery is a commercially produced condiment generally used for dressing salads, which is a blend of some ‘grape must’ and vinegar.  In Italian it is labelled ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’, and it is sold in a variety of bottle shapes and sizes.  This condiment is in part, produced or bottled in the Modena or Reggio Emilia area, and has received the EU designation of Protected Geographical Indication.

These commercial-grade products imitate the traditional product. They are made of wine vinegar with the addition of colouring, caramel and sometimes thickeners like guar gum or corn flour to artificially simulate the sweetness and thickness of the aged Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. IGP status requires a minimum aging period of two months, not necessarily in wooden barrels, rising to three years when labeled as invecchiato (aged). As the manufacturing process is highly industrialized, the output of a medium-sized producer may be hundreds of litres per day.

Olives and Lemons


Traditional balsamic vinegar is the granddaddy of balsamic vinegars. To this day it is only made in Reggio Emilia and Modena, Italy, using traditional methods, and production is overseen from beginning to end by a special certification agency.

Traditional balsamic vinegar begins with grape must —whole pressed grapes complete with juice, skin, seeds and stems. The must from sweet white locally grown and late-harvested grapes —usually Lambrusco or Trebbiano varieties— is cooked over a direct flame until concentrated by roughly half, then left to ferment naturally for up to three weeks, and then matured and further concentrated for a minimum of 12 years in a “batteria,” or five or more successively smaller aging barrels. 

Antique grape crusher


These barrels are made of different types of wood such as oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, and mulberry, so that the vinegar can take on the complex flavors of the casks.


The grape must ages and naturally ferments concentrating the flavor.  The resulting alcohol evaporates through the opening of each barrel that in the photo, is covered by a small piece of white cloth.  As the grape must in each barrel reduces, it is topped up periodically from the must in the larger barrel.  The grape must makes its way from the largest barrel to the smallest barrel, all the while reducing and becoming more concentrated, until it is finally drawn from the smallest barrel after 12 years.  A consortium of master tasters then determines whether or not this resulting balsamic vinegar reaches the quality level required to earn the consortium’s seal of approval.  

This seal designates that bottle as being “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP.   

DOP seal for balsamic vinegar

The 12 year old balsamic vinegar bottles are capped with a white/cream coloured cap – always.

12 yer old balsamic vinegar

All consortium approved product must be sold in this particular type of 100 ml bottle – as shown above.

Color and Texture: Traditional balsamic vinegar is glossy, viscous, and dark brown, though it captures light beautifully. It moves like syrup, and has a velvety texture on the tongue.

Flavor: A rich, complex sweetness that explodes in the mouth with notes of fig, molasses, cherry, chocolate, or prune. Traditional balsamic should pick up the flavors of the wood it matured in, and may have a slight smokiness. Traditional balsamic offers a mellow tartness rather than a strong acidity.

Use: Traditional balsamic is not a cooking ingredient — heating it will kill its distinctive bouquet — and it would be wasted as an ingredient in a salad dressing. Instead, use it where it can shine. Try putting a few drops on fresh berries, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or creamy desserts like panna cotta, zabaglione, or vanilla ice cream.

Traditional balsamic can be used at the end of cooking. It’s excellent drizzled over traditional veal scaloppine, a rich risotto, or the Italian stew bollito misto. It’s also great over grilled meats and seafood. Add about a teaspoon per person just before serving to get the best of its flavor.

In Italy really good balsamic is also drunk as a palette cleanser, aperitif or digestif, especially on special occasions such as weddings. The name “balsamic” connotes the vinegar’s original use as a tonic, or “balm.”

Storage: Traditional balsamic vinegar will keep indefinitely, but store in a cool dark place to best preserve the complexity of its flavors, and keep away from other pungent ingredients. Balsamic vinegar will not continue to mature in the bottle.

Traditionally produced balsamic vinegar that is aged 25 years earns a special designation from the consortium and its label will read Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP  Extravecchio meaning extra aged.

The extra aged bottles are capped with a gold cap – always.


Legal bottles


Do yourself a favour, spend the 50 Euros (or up to 200Euros) for a bottle, roast yourself a duck, a goose, a turkey, or a pork tenderloin, use a few drops of your REAL balsamic vinegar as a glaze, invite some good friends over, and appreciate the tradition, the passion and the dedication of the traditional balsamic vinegar producer.  Or, better yet,  pour a few drops of balsamic vinegar on some quality vanilla ice cream.  Delicious!

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