It’s likely that you may think I’ve gone off my rocker. Vinegar on a salad – of course. Vinegar on french fries – sure. But vinegar on ice cream?! Greg, you must be crazy?! I assure you, I am not (well, at least when it comes to this point). Provided one very important detail is in play… that the vinegar used is aged balsamic vinegar from Modena. This dark, delicious treat becomes sweet and thick (almost, syrupy) once it has been aged 12(+) or 25(+) years.
Old fashioned equipment used to make vinegar now stands as decoration
I have been a fan of all things vinegar for as long as I can remember. Admittedly, a strange condiment choice (above ketchup or mayonnaise) – but the heart wants what the heart wants. Although we use apple cider vinegar every single day, I have always been quite fond of balsamic vinegar. Just the right amount can add the perfect hit of acid to round out a caprese salad. However, I recently learned that I have become accustomed to eating the equivalent of a McDonald’svalue meal when a readily available filet mignon was just around the corner. But let’s back up and find out how I discovered this…
Julia stand by an old grape press
She’s a curious little girl
One of the barrels used for aging
Villa San Donnino has been a family run business for three generations
When my aunt Deborah and uncle S came to visit, we ventured on a road trip to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. If you read that particular post, you learned that Emilia-Romagna is widely known for two things – cars and food. One of the most significant contributors to the food column is the aged balsamic vinegar that is produced exclusively in Modena. On our final day of the road trip, we arranged for a private tasting with a local producer, Villa San Donnino. Jen had learned that a tour and tasting at Villa San Donnino was one of the top-rated attractions on Trip Advisor. Once again, our favorite online guide for all things travel hit a home-run.
The driveway leading toward the villa
The villa of, Villa San Donnino
The important aging process begins here, in these barrels
Not only did the overall experience exceed our expectations – it raised the bar for what events like this should be all like over the country. The owner and third generation producer, Davide greeted us warmly and took us into the portion of the property where the vinegar is aged. He first gave us a brief explanation of the vinegar itself. It was summarized nicely in a marketing brochure I took from the villa, so I will copy the text below:
Davide explains the rigorous balsamic making process
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is unique from all other vinegar based condiments. Unlike ordinary vinegar which has its origins in an alcoholic liquid, balsamic vinegar is produced directly from grape juice. Grapes, harvested in the region in which balsamic vinegar is produced, are crushed and their liquid – “must” – is boiled in an open vat over a fire. This liquid is then placed in a high quality wooden barrels in which, through an oxidation process, it is transformed into vinegar. The barrels are kept in a vinegar loft – acataia – where over a number of years, the precious liquid inside is lovingly cared for through a special technique involving transfers and topping up. Over many years macrobiotic and enzymatic modifications unite to achieve an exceptional balance in the fragrance and flavor.
As we climbed the stairs to the acataia (vinegar loft) we were first greeted by the unique and pleasant aroma permeating throughout the loft. Davide began to explain the aging process, having already described that his balsamic vinegar juice comes exclusively from grapes on his property. In order to properly age vinegar, you must use a batteria, a series of five or six barrels that descend in size. A process of “topping” off from the larger barrels into the subsequent smaller barrels is done over many years in order to replace evaporated liquids. Since the last, smallest barrel is the object from which the final contents are removed for bottling – there is no way to identify a specific amount of time in the barrels (i.e. twelve years). Because the liquids have been mixed from the larger barrels over many years, a unique system of labeling was created. A balsamic vinegar that was aged for 12 years will have been aged for at least twelve years (meaning, that 12 years is the youngest portion allowed in that mixture). The same is true for 25 years and the extremely rare 50 year vintages.
A batteria, aging the vinegar
Another room with a different collection of barrels
This reserve vinegar has been aging since 1972
As Davide was explaining the process, we all noticed that he acquired a little two-foot groupie. Our little Julia seemed more than just enamored with Davide, she fell head over heels for him! She kept asking him to pick her up and would require his attention at almost every point hereafter. It was hard for Davide to focus on the remainder of his tour, when at each turn he would hear a little voice saying, “Davide… hold me!” If she liked him this early on in the tour, she loved him when he brought out the gelato (ice cream) for us to try.
Davide with S and Deborah
Julia holds Davide close for a photo
Davide brings Julia in to taste the vinegar with ice cream – she wouldn’t let him go
You see, as I mentioned earlier, aged balsamic vinegar has a wonderfully sweet taste with a somewhat thick consistency. It pairs wonderfully with fruit (melon, strawberries), meat (a nice hearty steak), cheese (a few drizzles over parmigiano) and especially ice cream!* In order to prove this point, Davide had arranged a tasting – a “flight” of vinegars, if you will. We started with a store-bought, uncertified vinegar. It was not good. Then we moved onto his white vinegar before climbing the ladder through his 12 year and on to the 25 year. Each one was more magical than the last. When he drizzled it on the ice cream, we couldn’t believe how well it paired. Julia was such a fan of the vinegar that she didn’t want anything to do with the ice cream, and just wanted more vinegar! This is one Italian baby!
A display set, ready for us to taste
Davide explains the differences of the vinegars to an enamored fan
“Let the tastings begin!”
Davide gave us a very informative and interesting lesson
Julia did not want to miss her turn tasting
She loved the vinegar of Villa San Donnino
The vinegar coats the ice cream like a sweet syrup
Davide drizzles the vinegar for the rest of the group
As the tour wound down, Davide was starting to feel more like a family member than someone we had just met. Each couple bought some of his wonderful aged balsamic. Jen and I got some to use here in Italy and some for when we move home (unlike olive oil, the vinegar can last for many years in the bottle). I think S and Deborah bought his entire supply, including an affinato (aged 12+ years), an extravecchio (aged 25+ years) and the riserva (aged 50+ years). I think I’ll risk facing ten years in prison to smuggle home a wheel of parmigiano-reggiano cheese if S will promise to drizzle some of his riserva on it!
Julia helps Davide ring her father up
S and Davide take a picture with his new 50 year Riserva
All of a sudden, we all heard, “anche io” (“me too” or “so do I)
Julia didn’t want them taking a picture without her
Davide holds Julia for a hug
Julia gives Davide a big hug
When we had completed the tour and acquisition of our newfound condiments, Davide did something that I suspect he doesn’t do for most tour groups. He offered to open his private home to us, the villa pictured in the brochure. This villa was acquired by his grandfather in the 1940’s and has stayed with the family ever since. In fact, the villa itself plays an integral role in the history of Acetaia Villa San Donnino. After acquiring the property, his grandfather happened upon a barrel used for making vinegar and so he thought he would “give it a try”. Over seventy years later, the family is still making vinegar in the traditional way. Davide explained that to be included in the small fraternity of roughly 80 producers in the world… you must have time, patience and a passion that cannot be taught. The tour of his home was simply amazing, jaw dropping examples of art and collectables abound around each corner. It was no wonder that Bernardo Bertolucci chose this location to film part of his movie, 1900, staring a young Robert DeNiro and Gérard Depardieu.
Everyone prepares to go into Davide’s home
Quite a grand entrance
The ceiling above the staircase
Stunning artwork adorns nearly every wall
The stairwell from the second floor
A collection of smaller original prints frame an antique desk nicely
A stairwell leads to an annex full of glass pieces
If this dining room could talk… I can’t imagine the history it’s seen. Robert DeNiro, for starters…
This was one of the more beautiful chandeliers I’d ever seen
As the sun was setting on a long and wonderful day, we bid Davide a fond farewell and Julia tossed her new friend many many kisses. We will definitely come back to see Davide again and re-stock our balsamic vinegar; if you find yourself anywhere near Modena, I suggest you pay him a visit as well!
*These are just a few of the wonderful uses for the condiment. While there are many, many uses for aged balsamic – most applications require a unique understanding of the complexities of this liquid gold. Since it is very expensive and can also overpower a dish with careless use, it is recommended that you do a quick bit of research before adding to your next dish.