Saturday, February 13, 2010

Aged Balsamic Vinegar from Acetaia San Giacomo

Feb. 2010 028 If your idea of balsamic vinegar is what’s available at your supermarket, well… let’s just say that the product you pick up for $5 or $10 a bottle at your local grocery store is as different from the real stuff as extra virgin olive oil is from motor oil.

Real, aged balsamic vinegar is as thick and dark as molasses, and is made only from the juice, or mosto (must) of the grapes. No sugar, no coloring, no flavoring – just cooked grape juice with a little natural yeast.  It has an acidic hint, but the sweet notes come through loud and clear.

The process has roots back to ancient times. The Roman poet Virgil wrote about cooking must 30 years B.C. and the epicure Apicius wrote about it 60 years A.D.

On my recent trip to Italy, I visited a place that makes traditional aged balsamic vinegar – the Acetaia San Giacomo.  Acetaia means literally “a place that makes vinegar” and its owner, Andrea Bezzecchi, generously game us a tour of his operation. The acetaia is located in the countryside of the Emilia Romagna region near Novellara, the heartland of two other well-known culinary delights  that pair beautifully with aged balsamic vinegar – prosciutto di parma and parmigiano reggiano.

Acetaia San Giacomo Andrea, 36, who also holds a law degree, took over the acetaia in 1996 along with his brother, but his family has been making balsamic vinegar since 1960. (Andrea doesn’t call it a business, because as he says “A business is not a passion.”) 

His product is cherished by connoisseurs not only in Italy, but around the world. In the United States, it is used at restaurants ranging from New York City’s “Le Bernardin” to “Spiaggia” in Chicago, a favorite of President Obama’s.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is made in only two places, both of which are in the Emilia Romagna region – the provinces of Reggio Emilia and Modena. This artisanal, viscous nectar accounts for only 1 percent of all the balsamic vinegar on the market. The rest, or 900 million liters, is made in factories and not necessarily in Italy or in Modena, although the name Modena is used on a lot of industrially produced bottles.

For the traditional aged balsamic, producers are held to strict standards by a local consortium, who must give its seal of approval before it can be labeled. To start with, only two kinds of grapes are allowed to be used, lambrusco or trebbiano, both of which must be grown only in the local area.

Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 198

The grape must is then cooked over direct heat for 12 to 16 hours, which concentrates the sugars by 50 percent. This 12 hours, Andrea says, is the same time taken between milking the cows used in making parmigiano cheese, just another measure of how local foods that should be eaten together are linked.  After 12 hours of cooking, the must is called “saba” and is delicious as a sweetener over ice cream or fruits.  But you can’t call it traditional balsamic vinegar. For that, the precious liquid needs to travel through many barrels and at least 12 years.

The cooked must starts its journey in a large oak barrel – from 220 liters to 350 liters. A large circular area is covered only by layers of cloth to keep out the dust and other impurities. The first fermentation and oxidation take place here. After one year the resulting product can be sold as vinegar, but not as traditional balsamic vinegar.

Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 220 The vinegar moves through a series of smaller barrels.  Andrea takes his vinegar through successively smaller barrels made of different woods, beginning with barrels of oak, then chestnut, juniper, back to chestnut, on to cherry, mulberry and acacia. Most producers use five different barrels, but Acetaia San Giacomo uses seven. “Every wood gives a different flavor,” Andrea said.

Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 233 Concentration of the vinegar happens faster in the smaller barrels, Andrea said, “Because more wood touches the must. But the big barrel gives more oxidation,” he said. Once a year, some of the vinegar is taken out of the smallest (and oldest) barrel for judging.

A local consortium of experts rates the vinegar, using different criteria for sight, smell and taste. Here is the score card:

Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 243

Different scores are given depending on the qualities of the vinegar. Acetaia San Giacomo produces three types of traditional aged balsamic: the red label – which is aged at least 12 years and must attain a minimum score of 240 points; the silver label  - aged from 12 to 25 years with a minimum score of 270 points, and the gold label -  aged more than 25 years with a score of at least 300. Each bottle also bears the European DOP (Denominazione Origine Protetta) label that guarantees the quality and origin of the product.

Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 240

The balsamic vinegar that is extracted from the smallest barrel is replaced by vinegar from the next largest barrel and so on down the line, until the the process reaches the first barrel, or badesse.

All this waiting for years and years produces a complex, ambrosial nectar that does not come cheaply (as you’d imagine), but for a special meal with special people, it’s worth the splurge. In addition to the traditional aged balsamic, Andrea produces a host of other vinegar products that don’t take such a bite out of the wallet. Among them, is “essenza,” a vinegar that is bottled before the final maturation of traditional balsamic and a balsamic jelly, that pairs well with aged cheeses or desserts.  The acetaia’s balsamic jelly is also used as a filling in chocolates sold under the San Giacomo name.

Feb. 2010 023 For a tasting of Acetaia San Giacomo’s traditional balsamic and a fantastic lunch, Andrea took us to a restaurant in the countryside that we’d never have found on our own, Trattoria Cognento.  As we sat down, out came a huge chunk of parmigiano reggiano and Andrea’s most highly prized traditional balsamic vinegar – the gold label. Andrea sectioned off pieces, letting the cheese fall along its natural grain and poured droplets of the vinegar over the cheese. What a sensation to taste the pungent crunchiness of the parmigiano topped with the unctious and sweetly acidic balsamic. It was a perfect pairing.

drops of goodness

Andrea had to leave to meet his brother who was coming from Verona with the key to the acetaia (Andrea accidentally locked himself out after greeting us at the front door), but not before ordering our meal for us. All the foods were typical dishes of my mother’s region - Emilia Romagna – from the chisolini, or gnoccho fritto (fried bread)

gnocchi fritti

to the local salumi (salami, coppa, prosciutto)

Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 209 to the exquisitely delicate pastas filled with ricotta and spinach. He ordered a local lambrusco wine for us to complement the meal.

Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 212 It was a perfect way to experience the flavors of some of Italy’s best foods and products, including Acetaia San Giacomo’s traditional balsamic vinegar. Grazie mille per un giorno indimenticabile, Andrea.

Some of Acetaia San Giacomo’s products can also be purchased on Formaggio Kitchen, Olive Nation and

For those of you who’d like to try making that fried bread, here’s a recipe courtesy of the Italian Trade Commission:

Chisolini - Fried Bread

Printable recipe here

1 pound all-purpose flour
9 ounces milk
2 ounces butter
1 teaspoon active powdered yeast
Vegetable or frying oil
1 teaspoon salt
  1. On the pastry board make a cone of flour with a cavity on top (a fontana in Italian, i.e. "like a fountain"). Add the yeast previously diluted in lukewarm water, 1 teaspoon of salt, the butter (softened and cut in pieces) in the center of the fontana and start to knead with enough lukewarm milk to obtain a rather soft dough. Knead for 15 minutes and then roll it out with a rolling pin, making a disk (or a square). Fold it in quarters, then roll out the dough again, and fold it again, repeating the process a total of five times. Roll the dough in jelly roll fashion and slice the resulting dough in 1 1/2-inch pieces (you can also cut each slice in half) and stretch it with the rolling pin so as to obtain a piece of dough 1/4-inch thick. Then cut into shapes each side 4-inch long (size can be altered if desired).
  2. When you have finished cutting all the dough, heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan and then start frying the pieces of dough. Brown well on both sides. They will puff up and be an even, golden color. Drain, remove the excess fat by placing on paper towels and serve hot.

Makes about 12 servings.

They can be served with various ingredients such as Parmigiano, prosciutto, salami, etc.; they can also be eaten for breakfast with coffee and milk.

, gnoccho fritto, chisolini


  1. What a terrific post. The information about the balsamic vinegar and the folks who make it was fascinating and like taking a step back in time to when artisinal products were the norm. I'm going to give the fried bread a try the first chance I get. I hope you are having a wonderful weekend. Blessings...Mary

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. I love these posts where one comes back from a holiday and report back and...bring back new goodies to cook with.

    This stuff even makes bologna chic with a few drops on!

  4. Great post! There is a huge difference between an aged balsamic and what is sold at the local market.
    I had a bottle that was so precious it lasted for 10 years.

  5. Un posto magnifico e una bellissima esperienza. non conosco personalmente Anfrea Bezzecchi ma l'ho visto in streaming per la sfida Voiello. I prodotti dell'acetaia San giacomo sono molto conosciuti anche dalle mie parti.
    Buona domenica Daniela.

  6. I am in a hypnotic trance of fried bread and balsamic vinegar. I finally invested last year in a balsamic vinegar - from Modena and I treat it like liquid gold - but it is seeing good use. It helps to know the history and the preparation of it - to understand the prices. And the pride.

  7. Oh Linda! I just read this post with my husband sitting next to me, shaking his head and saying OMG! Your discriptions of your time there makes us want to go book a flight right now!

  8. Very cool, I like it all!! Balsamic on Parmigiana!! Thank you for sharing!

  9. Fabulous post Linda. Great pictures too. I neearly fell over when I saw the droplets of the vinegar on the crumbly reggiano. Also that platter of cured meat! Sounds like a fabulous trip.

  10. The fried bread is great with garlic rubbed all over and sprinkled with sea salt. In Hungary and Austria they have fried bread stands.

  11. It looks so good. I wish I can have a bottle of that!

  12. Fabulous! I love the photo of the cheese + balsamic. A perfect marriage. Looking forward to giving the jelly a try too.

  13. what a fantastic post - I kept reading it over again trying to find where you said you were giving away a bottle....let me go and read it again in case I missed it.

  14. I loathe the watery balsamic vinegar sold in supermarkets and do not use it to cook...there is no comparison to a rich, thick balsamic vinegar!

  15. Linda...what a wonderful and interesting post. Thank you so much for sharing....
    Fabulous pics as well!

  16. Wow that shot of the balsamic falling onto the parmigiano reggiano is stunning. I try to get 15 year aged balsamic when I can, but that stuff ain't cheap. It's sad how most grocery stores pass off cornsyrup and food color laden knock-offs as balsamic.

  17. Dear Linda
    thank you very much for your visit and for your post.
    It was a big pleasure drive you trough our fantastic Products (Balsamico, Parmigiano Reggiano and typical trattoria)

    We don't call the deep fried bread "chisolini" but just *Gnocco Fritto*. We're really gelous about it :)

    thank you again

  18. Fascinating look at how this precious balsamic vinegar is made! And your lunch tasting sounds terrific! I love the picture of the drops of vinegar on the Parmigiano cheese!

  19. The aged gold label balsamic vinegar on the parmigiano reggiano looks delightful! Oh, and fried bread - how good this must be! This was such an interesting post!

  20. It sounds as if I need to invest more money in my balsamic! While I don't buy the super cheap, I thought my $15 bottle was doing good! What a great post and I love the pic of the antipasto platter...yum!

  21. Oh, my. What a wonderfully informative post. I dream of such travel adventures...

  22. This vinegar should go very well w/ my Prospero olive oil!

  23. Thanks for this tour. We bought some veryvery old balsamic in Modena, and it's really amazing. We buy a bottle whenever we go back to Italy. It's worth the price, IMHO. A drop on strawberries is sublime.

  24. Wow... I am so jealous. Looks like you had an amazing time!

  25. This is just the kind of post I love. Informative, inspiring and with a link so you can get the good stuff yourself. It's so important to spread the word when a product or food becomes popular but is not generally understood or sold in its authentic (and much better) form. Thanks for all the great photos and info.

  26. grazie Linda, lovely comment. it feels like we were there, too. great pictures. thanks for writing about and explaining real artisanal foods and the difference with industrial, fake, italian sounding products. we, also, are proud to import and sell Andrea's Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale in America.
    Beatrice of

  27. Linda, what a magnificent "virtual tour" - the next best thing to being there. Your explanation of the process is so clear and thorough, the best I have read. What a treat it must be great to tour these very special places and have the opportunity speak to the producers. Thanks for taking us all along.