Modena in Modern Times
November-December 2005
Modena is a province of Emila-Romagna in northern Italy. That’s where they make the world-renowned balsamic vinegar that stocks the shelves of your supermarket’s gourmet section. Modena’s balsamic vinegar is a unique product, so prestigious is it that in days of yore it was offered as a gift to kings and heads of State. It’s part of a cultural heritage that needs to be preserved, in the name of the artisan who became the crucible of this centuries-old expertise, but also for the symbolic relationship with time that it evoke – a relationship that, alas, modern Man has no time to think about! Modena’s balsamic vinegar is undoubtedly the ideal representation of the dilemma facing today’s consumer, which is to choose between widely produced and inexpensive or appreciation of nature’s rhythm… and the price that comes with it.

First, let’s see how this product is made. Usually, vinegar is produced when wine degrades but in Modena, balsamic vinegar is made directly from grapes that have been cultivated for this express purpose. In late fall, as the grapes are overflowing with sugars and sunshine, that’s when they’re harvested by hand, and then the must is cooked. And now begins the very long fermentation and oxidation process in which this precious juice will slowly make its way through a series of barrels called batteria, which are lovingly handed-down from generation to generation.

Producers all have their own batteria, comprised of 5 to 9 different size barrels made from various types of wood. The journey, which may last anywhere from 4 to 50 years, begins in a large oak barrel then, as the product becomes more concentrated, it passes through chestnut wood, then cherry wood, and so on to develop new flavours. Its final destination is a very small mulberry wood barrel. They say that these small barrels are where this wondrous elixir is born! Truth be told, it’s all in the artisans’ hands, in how they evaluate the time spent in fermentation and passing through each barrel, let’s not forget that no other ingredient is added to the product.

Time and experienced hands form the alchemy that, in the end, creates balsamic vinegar that is much more evocative of a condiment than it is of vinegar. Widely used in salads, it’s also added to grilled meats, or it can be drizzled over strawberries or vanilla ice cream. And if per chance you should have very old vintage, it can be served as a digestive after a meal. Surprised? Have you ever even tasted authentic balsamic? Perhaps your bottle indicates “balsamic vinegar from Modena”, but you should know that this appellation is not clearly defined. And it seems that multinational corporations, sensing consumer interest for this divine nectar, have set up shop in Modena to produce their own somewhat altered version of “balsamic vinegar from Modena”… in 24 hours! In fact, that’s the product most commonly found on our shelves, and at very affordable prices.

I have nothing against this kind of product democratization, as long as consumers are aware of it. In 1994, Modena balsamic vinegar producers joined together to form a cooperative for the purpose of clarifying this situation: they had to protect and detail their specifications, as well as defend the proper usage of the name. From that day forward, the cooperative certifies its compliance with the age-old, hand-crafted method as stated on a special CABM (which stands for Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena) label. That’s the label we should be looking for. In fact, the cooperative submitted a request to be registered for Protected Geographical Identification (IGP - Indication géographique protégée) with the European Union.

Will authentic balsamic vinegar stand the test of modern times? As long as there are men and women who believe in the human factor, which includes tradition, know-how, knowledge and skills, there is hope. As long as we understand that time itself is a precious and unique ingredient, there will be people willing to purchase high quality, top-of-the-line products. Expensive? Yes. Then let’s keep these products for special occasions. In doing so, we’ll be reminded of how important it is, however busy our lives may be, to set aside some time for celebrations and special occasions…

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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