A Taste of Italy

By: Dana Rozansky

Usually my food explorations take me all across Miami – from South Beach to Wynwood to the Gables and beyond. When I’m feeling extra adventurous, I might even trek to Palm Beach or Key West if it means a good meal will be waiting for me upon arrival.

So what, might you ask, would entice me to travel nearly 15 hours in the name of food porn? An opportunity of a lifetime.

When I was invited on a press trip to Italy to learn all about Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, my answer was simple. Hell. Yes. I had the chance to travel across the world, explore a beautiful new country, eat all the carbs and cheese I desired, and wash it all down with balsamic and wine. Not a hard sell.

While my hopes were certainly sky high before departing on this adventure, the experience far exceeded my expectations.

Upon arriving in Italy, I was taken aback by the country’s beauty. It is overwhelmingly lush, with greenery and flowers for days. Modena has this small-town charm that’s difficult to explain. Pictures don’t even do it justice. From the historic, brick buildings to the narrow, cobblestone streets, I quickly understood how people could fall in love with this place.

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Once I settled in and got accustomed to the eye candy that is Modena, I was ready to take a serious bite out of everything this city had to offer. Modena, which is situated in the Emilia-Romagna region in the North of Italy, is known for countless culinary temptations such as giant stuffed tortellini, prosciutto, parmigiano reggiano, and of course, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.

Prior to this trip, I admittedly didn’t know much about balsamic vinegar despite the fact that I consume it on a regular basis. I’m quick to reach for that tall, slender bottle of liquid as a salad dressing or a marinade without giving it more than a cursory thought. Well, all of that changed during my few short, but action-packed days in Italy.

Each day consisted of an ambitious agenda, from exploring castles and museums, to crafting hand-made tortellini to indulging in Michelin-starred meals. The true highlight, however, was getting the chance to visit a different balsamic vinegar factory each day, where I got to rediscover a seemingly simple condiment that is so much more complex than I could have imagined.

We visited several different factories over the span of three days and each was completely unique, from size to aesthetic to overall feel. One day we explored the largest producer of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, while the next was spent at a small, quaint, family-run factory. Each was impressive for different reasons. While I was blown away by the sheer volume of balsamic that was produced at the former, I was humbled by the fact that the latter had employed the same woman for more than 30 years – and that woman was hand-labeling bottles of vinegar and attaching scrolls with the factory’s history to each bottle.

Despite the differences amongst these factories, there’s one thing that all of them had in common: their passion and commitment for producing a high-quality product. So that brings me to production. If you’re anything like me, you probably never thought about how balsamic is produced. But if you’ve made it this far in my story, I’m going to wager you’re interested (unless you’re my mom, in which case you have a moral obligation to read my post).

First things first: Grapes are pressed to produce grape must, which is essentially grape juice with the skin, seeds and stems of the fruit. But to produce real balsamic vinegar of Modena, you can’t use just any grapes. The only ones that make the cut are Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Albana, Ancellota, Fortana and Montuni, which are all typical of the Emilia Romagna region. Next, after crushing and cooking the grape must, it is mixed with wine vinegar then fermented in large vats then transferred into wooden barrels for the maturation process, which can take anywhere from 60 days to 3 years. After 3 years, the balsamic can be classified as “aged.”

It’s important to point out that production is only half the battle. The other half is protection. I know what you’re thinking – what are we protecting balsamic from, exactly? Well, like many coveted products, there tend to be imposters out there trying to pretend they’re the real deal. Think Prado bags in Chinatown, for example. The same applies to balsamic vinegar of Modena. A quick history lesson: in 2009, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena was registered as a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) by the European Union. This certification guarantees the product’s quality, production and place of origin. Translation: it proves that it’s legit. Given this certification, one can understand the importance of upholding balsamic’s street credit and debunking any imposters. Still with me?

With a reputation like that to uphold, it’s no wonder why each individual I encountered at these factories took such immense pride in their work. The fruits of their labor are literally being enjoyed worldwide. If you take a moment to think about the widespread impact of their work, it’s staggering. Roughly 90 million liters of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena are produced each year. Of that number, more than 90% is exported to 120 countries around the world. Talk about global reach...

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After several days of soaking up everything Modena had to offer, I returned home to Miami with a brand new balsamic collection and a brand new appreciation for a condiment that had never commanded my attention – until now.

So I’ll leave you with this: I hope that next time you drizzle balsamic on your caprese salad or use it to marinade your chicken, you give it more than a cursory thought. Perhaps you think of the elderly Italian woman hand-labeling the bottles. Or the proud factory owner whose children and grandchildren are now helping him run the show. Or perhaps you just enjoy the taste of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. That’s perfectly fine, too.

Until next time, Italy.