You can buy a 16-ounce bottle of balsamic vinegar for $2.89. Or a 3.5-ounce bottle for upwards of $200. What’s up with that? The answers lie inside a balsamic vinegar farmhouse near Modena, Italy.
This farm has been owned and operated by the Pedroni family since 1862, when Guiuseppe Pedroni, a modest cowherd, takes a chance on the lottery and scores a winning pot big enough to buy a couple of farms, complete with houses and a 15th-century Benedectine monastery that he converts into a tavern. Guiuseppe gets to work producing wine for the roadhouse and also decides to use some wooden wine barrels to start the production of balsamic vinegar.
For the record, balsamic, derived from the Latin word balsamum, isn’t about balsam anything. It actually means “restorative” or “curative,” kind of like balm. Traditional balsamic vinegar was developed in Emilia-Romagna during ancient times and remained somewhat a regional secret until the locals gave Holy Roman Emperor Henry III a bottle of the stuff while he was passing through in 1046. Then the word was out. People wanted this nectar of the gods, and they went to places like the Pedroni farmhouse to get it. Still today, traditional balsamic vinegar (aka Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale) is only produced in the Emilia-Romagna region using traditional methods overseen by a special certification agency.
The process all starts with grape must—that’s whole, pressed grapes (sweet, white, local varieties like Lambrusco or Trebbiano) cooked until reduced by about half, then left to ferment for about three weeks before being aged—for a whopping 12 to 25 years—in a series or “batteria” or barrels ranging in size and made of different woods, such as oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, and mulberry to give distinctive flavor. Unlike wine vinegar, no flavorings are added to traditional balsamic vinegar. It’s the aging process that produces the dark color, syrupy denseness, and ridiculously rich flavor.
At Aceto Pedroni, now in its sixth generation and led by Guiuseppe III, you can sample the traditional balsamic vinegars, then enjoy lunch at the tavern, Osteria of Rubbiara, which has both indoor dining and a charming outdoor courtyard where cellphones are banned and food is the focal point. They serve delicious traditional dishes including tortellini drizzled with balsamic vinegar (you’ll never go back to sauce again), Pedroni Lambrusco Chicken (the recipe is a family secret, so don’t ask), and vanilla ice cream topped with thick-as-syrup balsamic vinegar.
To taste this little bit of heaven here in the States, look for the “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” label and a D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) stamp. And check the ingredients list: The only ingredient in traditional balsamic vinegar is grape must. There’s nothing added.
You can go with the “affinato” or “fine” grade, with a red cap, which is aged 12 years, or splurge on the “extravecchio,” aged 25 years to thick, sweet perfection.
Once you have this elixir in your kitchen, remember: Don’t torch it. Extended heating will ruin it. Instead, use it at the end of cooking. Drizzle it over grilled meats or risotto, put a few drops on Parmesan cheese, berries, ice cream, or panna cotta. It’s heaven. And your tongue will tell you immediately why it’s worth the price—and worthy of an emperor.