In my other life, when I was a writer for a cook magazine, I was assigned an article on balsamic vinegar. “Cool!” I though. I was so sure I knew everything about it that I accepted the task without hesitation. Until I met a man who made it. And my perspective changed. At that time, the aceto balsamico was not a PDO ( Protected Designated Origin) product yet. We would have to wait another 10 long years. All the information I had was the name of the man I was going to meet, an address and a phone number. There were no GPS trackers or cell phones to depend on then… just a lot of confidence and a map. Yes, those beloved maps that nobody uses anymore. My relationship with the four cardinal points is well known, therefore I left very early that morning, bound for Modena. I was on the ball! I told myself that all roads lead to Rome in the end, and there was nothing to worry about. Once in Modena, I realized how wrong I had been. The acetaia (vinegar cellar) I was visiting was not in Modena, but in a remote area in the Emilian countryside, literally in the middle of nowhere. None of the residents were able to give me clear directions. You did again Lotti! You are so lost you can not even track yourself on a map!
It started to rain. In November it is more than expected, after all. I tried to stay composed and smile at all the people who were trying to help me with directions. I soon found out that the “Drive down there,” “ Turn up here,” and “Make a left when you see the shrine with the Madonna,” directions were not getting me anywhere at all. But somehow, later than I expected, I reached my destination.
A beautiful and ancient country house nestled on top of a rolling hill, surrounded by fields of fog was all I could see. As I was driving up, everything below me was disappearing in the fog. Finally I saw the man I was going to interview. He was waiting outside for me, under the porch, holding a red umbrella. The only bright color in all that greyness. It was impossible to figure out just how old he was as he looked old and frail. I apologized profusely for my delay, he gave me a big smile instead and said, “Do not worry young lady, my aceto (vinegar) is not going anywhere!” Inside, his wife had prepared a welcome snack which for me was more than a feast: cured meats and Parmigiano Reggiano, an incredible bruschetta with pears and Parmigiano, bread and a huge basket of flaky Gnocco fritto, along with his majesty, the Balsamic Vinegar. What a great unexpected meal. Piero took a small bottle of balsamic vinegar, and poured a couple of drops on top of a sliver of cheese. The liquid was as thick as molasses. He looked at me with the eyes of a man who does not take a no for an answer and said “doesn’t it look like blood? ” He was right. The glossy color was as nearly black; the fragrance and flavor were unique, amazing. It was incredible what that drop of balsamic could reveal. I realized that I had never tasted something like that before.
Piero’s balsamic vinegar was 47 old. Very old for me, not that old for him, apparently. His regret was that he was too old to even hope to taste it when it would be sixty years old. His whole life was spent on this ambitious project, but he knew he would never live to see the final masterpiece. That statement got me like a punch in the stomach. Balsamic vinegar is a family project, somehow a dowry, that gets passed from a generation to the next. A real labor of love. It is also a prized possession that represents a small fortune to families just like Piero’s. Every family has a recipe of their own, each having a different and unique artisanal taste. One of the biggest differences is age. The Tradizionale Extravecchio balsamic vinegar is more than 25 years old. Its label must say “extravecchio” and show a golden seal. Aceto balsamico tradizionale is less than 25 years old and has either a silver or orange seal on the label. Many years later, in 2020, I met Umberto and Francesco Sereni. Young, modern visionaries but extremely traditional when it comes to Balsamic Vinegar. They call their products food jewels and they really are.
A black liquid originally used by the Duke of Modena as digestive after a good meal rather than a condiment, is now used as the final and prized touch to embellish and enhance the flavor of very simple dishes, like a bollito misto or ravioli di ricotta. Both Umberto and Francesco welcome my students to their beautiful acetaia, where they teach how balsamico is made and then offer an unforgettable tasting, with the gnocco fritto that I adore so much. It is a Modena affair, after all.
Making balsamic vinegar requires unconditional love and dedication, passion and sacrifice. Balsamico is made from Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes and its production involves precise rules dictated by a rigid disciplinary committee. First the grape must get cooked, then the liquid gets slowly aged in small barrels where it reduces every year. The “batteria” or barrel set, is a series of five or more small wooden casks that are arranged according to a decreasing size scale, where the cooked must will go through deep changes during the course of the years. The barrels are the secret of the family recipe and may be of different wood types such as oak, mulberry, ash, chestnut, cherry, juniper, and acacia. The smallest barrel volume yields from 15 to 25 liters. On top of each barrel there is a hole called “cocchiume,” sealed with a natural cork that facilitates regular inspections in order to ensure the evolution of its precious content is going the right direction. The barrel set is essential for vinegar concentration due to the water loss through the staves. The content of each barrel gets transferred to the next one to infuse it with the flavor of the wood. The last barrel is normally the smallest. And that’s the one I wanted to carry home with me.
BRUSCHETTA WITH PEARS, PARMIGIANO AND BALSAMIC VINEGAR
You can use arugula, mache or red amaranth in place of the radicchio.
2 Bartlett pears, washed, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 thin slices of country bread
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shavings
4 tablespoons thinly shredded radicchio
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
In a large skillet, melt butter. Add pear slices and saute’ for 3 minutes or until slightly golden. Season with salt and pepper.
Toast the bread slices. Top with sauteed pear first, then with cheese and radicchio.
Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and serve.
Just like Balsamic vinegar, also gnocco fritto is a family recipe and is the best part of family meals. They come in light, crisp, golden, pillows which normally get paired with soft cheeses and culatello, but mortadella, salumi and prosciutto are also a perfect match. A feast for the eyes and a true joy for the palate. Lard is the ingredient that can not be missed in this recipe and calories should be totally ignored. Gnocco fritto is also called crescentina, torta fritta, and chisulen in other parts of Emilia. No matter how it is called, it is literally to die for.
200 ml lukewarm water
12 gr brewer’s yeast
10 gr fine sea salt
500 gr 00 flour, plus more for rolling
2 tbs whole milk
80 gr lard at room temperature
Lard or vegetable oil for frying
Pour 100 ml of lukewarm water in a large cup and using your fingertips, dissolve the yeast. Add two tablespoons of flour to the liquid and blend together until you create a very thin batter. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and rest for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a different cup, dissolve the salt in the remaining water.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and slowly pour in the water/salt blend, the leftover flour and milk, combining well. Incorporate the lard, mixing thoroughly. On a floured working surface, knead the dough for just a few minutes.
When the dough feels smooth and elastic, form it into a ball, place it in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rest for about three hours.
Once the dough has trippled in volume, transfer it back to a floured work surface, deflate it and roll it out with a rolling pin into a thin sheet, about 3 mm thick.
Cut it in squares or diamond shapes, about 8/10 cm per side
Fry them in a lot of hot lard or vegetable oil until golden-brown and crisp. Using a spider, drain the gnocco fritto and arrange on paper towels. Serve hot accompanied with prosciutto, salami and soft cheeses and a few drops of balsamico.