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When I started my retirement travels - the first of which was my solo overseas trip to Italy in 2009 - I wanted a way to share it with family and friends as it happened. Hence, "My Travel Journal". However I realized I wouldn't always be on a trip and wondered what to do with the blog in between times. My daughter pointed out, wisely, that travels can also include trips to the kitchen to try a new recipe, trips to visit family, trips to my neighborhood Starbucks, or a fun day trip with a friend. You're welcome to join me on any of these journeys!

P.S. I've set up separate pages for each of my major trips (see tabs above).

I recently added an "Italian Word a Day" thingie which shows up at the bottom of every page. You see the word and can click to hear it pronounced. I've been enjoying it and I think my accent is improving as time goes by.

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October 10, 2010

Thursday - the Grand Tour Continues

After the big lecture on parmesano reggiano, here's a little additional lecture on balsamic.  In order to be Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, it must first have only one ingredient: boiled grape juice. So if there are other ingredients listed, it's not the real thing.  Also , according to Alessandro, it must say "di Modena" on the label because only in the area of Modena are there the right NATURAL bacteria for fermenting the wine during the aging process.  And, of course, if the producer in Modena is a member of the consortium, it will also have D.O.P. on the label.  Just as with the cheese though, it could be a true balsamico without the D.O.P. but the consumer has to just go on faith.

Just thought I'd give you a little break here.  These are two rows of the barrels used to age the balsamic.  There must be five barrels at least.  This family uses 6 barrels.

NOTE:  There are only a few more pictures at the end and a lot of talk about the D.O.P. and the process of getting from the first year to 12 and beyond, so this may get pretty boring and you're welcome to silently move on. :)

One reason balsamico costs as much money as it does is because it takes 12 years to get a 1 liter bottle!!  That age is another DOP requirement, so again, there could be a good, but not as good, balsamic that has been aged only 8 years.  This family, in fact, sells a product that is aged to four years, they add I can't remember what to it, and sell it with a label that doesn't say anywhere that it is balsamic.  And we sampled that and it was tasty.

Anyway, since it has to age for 12 years before the DOP will stamp it (if it passes inspection!), that means if you were to buy your 5 barrels tomorrow, press your grapes (a lot of them), boil down the juice, and fill each barrel all the way up, you would then wait 12 years before you had a your 1 liter bottle of balsamic.  Then you would have to send that 1 liter bottle to the consortium, they would test it for color, aroma and most importantly taste and if it passed, they would bottle it and send it back to you with the D.O.P. label.  If it didn't pass, they would still send it back to you and you would have a couple of options as to what to do with it.  Now during those 12 years while you're waiting to get that one bottle to send off with prayers, you'd still have work to do because each year, you go through the process of "topping" off each barrel (there will have been evaporation) and this is done thusly:  first of all, you take 10% of the smallest barrel OUT of the barrel and I don't know what you do with that - it's not part of the story anymore.  Then you top off that little barrel with juice from the barrel beside it, top of that 2nd barrel with juice from beside it and so on til the last big barrel which you top off with fresh boiled grape juice. And after doing that for 12 years, your littlest barrel qualifies as a true "aged minimal 12 years" balsamic.

Now, the interesting part (sorry - it's interesting to me) is that the DOP bottles of minimal 12 year balsamic don't say anything anywhere about how long they've been aged.  If it's DOP, the customer knows it's a minimum of 12 years.  So, as the years go by, the family is still up in the attic (did I mention the barrels are always kept in attics, DOP or not?) going through the topping off process every year and so the balsamic in the smallest barrel is growing older and older - 13, 14, 15, etc. years.  When the smallest barrel reaches its 25th year, then the DOP bottles get a new label and it reads "extravecchio" which means extra old and the customer knows that means it is at least 25 years old.  However, that family (by now most likely the sons!) are still up there retopping the barrels every year and from then on til as long as the family keeps on going, it just gets older and older and older.  And since we got to taste several different ages, I can say that it also just gets better and better and better.

Our tasting consisted of a "store bought" vinegar that was truly hideous - I told Alessandro I thought they must have found the worst one they could because even the ones I bought and thought "well so what?" about were better than this one.  Then we tasted the 4-year product they sell and that was better - it w ould be a good one to use for like everyday salads and such.  Next was the minimal 12 year which Alessandro told us our particular one was 14 years old (they can tell this from the DOP information about when they drew it out of the barrel) and now we were getting somewhere.  I think what I bought last year (which I'm pretty sure wasn't DOP but was Modena and was good) would probably be a 12 year, from a non-consortium member.  Next we had an extravecchio, it was noticeably better than the 14 year, and then we had one that Alessandro said was 45 years and the people richer than I was were deciding that was the one they would buy!

And our last taste deserves its own paragraph with a note from me to anyone who is still reading:  I know this is insanely long and most likely quite boring, but my blog is also my diary and so I do have to include details of things that I find fascinating because next month if anyone happened to ask me how true balsamic is made all I would remember is that it's aged in barrels! :)

So, our last taste was from a bottle that had balsamic that had aged at least 150 years!!!  When we first arrived at the villa (which the grandfather bought I think in 1946), Alessandro explained that it was built in 1911 and that the grandfather had bought it with everything in it (which I will have some pictures of in a minute...or two) including, it was discovered, barrels in the attic with dates that indicated they had been aging for 150 years.  When he told us the story, I thought "well, that's a nice story" but couldn't quite take it seriously.  He said that when they discovered it, they took out the 1 liter from each of the smallest barrels ending up with 50 liters which they bottled up and sold.  So when he told us we were getting the 150 year old balsamic I was privately skeptical cause I thought "wait, you said they sold it", but then it dawned on me...those barrels are still up in the villa's attics, going through the same process still and so every year, they are pulling off the 50 liters of 150 year (older now, of course) balsamic.  Amazing!

Although as I sit here typing this, my skepticism again came into play and I'm going to have to e-mail Alessandro with a question (if I'm ever able to get on line again!) which is:  If the villa was built in 1911, how could the barrels have balsamic in them that was 150 years old?  Even now, it would just be approaching 100 years old.  He did point out a piece of paper framed on the wall of the tasting room that he said was the documentation of the age on those barrels...I suppose it's feasible that the barrels could have been moved in from wherever the family who built the villa had stored them...

Whatever, it was pretty much incredible.  And for our last treat, there was homemade vanilla gelato with I forget which of the many products we had tasted drizzled over it (not the 150 year old one!) and that was really wonderful.

All the rest of these pictures are from our little tour of the villa where the family now lives and I can only say I hope in their private rooms they've brought in at least some of their own things.  The rooms we saw were all "as purchased" and I would go totally insane actually living in them - partly cause they were pretty much over the top, but mostly because I've got to have "my stuff, man".

A sculpture in front of the villa - seems to be the front of a horse and I'm not sure what else.

A portion of the front of the villa...

Looking down the beautiful staircase...the decor was eclectic, but leaning heavily towards Art Deco.

A floor to ceiling wall to wall cabinet filled with Lalique glass - as Alessandro kept saying - "priceless"

The dining room ceiling - this room was really over the top!

The huge and gorgeous window on the staircase landing.

Really something, no?

And that's it for Part II - I want to get this posted so I'll only be 2-1/3 days behind so there will be a Part III.


Christopher said...

What you brought home last year was so tasty, it is hard to imagine what a 25 or 150 would taste like! And on ice cream, oddly, I can imagine that would be tasty. So what were the prices like for their various ages? And I'd be curious what the do with the "removed" liter each year.... Cuz as that first small barrel coninues to age, that extracted liter would be older and older and older every time... Maybe they top up the jug in their kitchen with it ;)

Hi! said...

Hi Chris! No, no - that's just it (you'll have to read more carefully) once they hit that 12-year mark every year when that liter comes out, that's what is sent to the D.O.P. (with only a number as identification so there can be no bias). And, if approved, it comes back (oh, I forgot to say this) in little 100 ml bottles with the label that the D.O.P. puts on them. So how many bottles is that? And those are what they sell as their minimal 12-year old balsamic. And you're right that small barrel continues to age (even though it's topped up each year, it's topped up with liquid from the next oldest barrel beside it). That's why there is no age on the real thing. Just "minimal 12 years" (I think he said it's on the label) and after 25 years of production from that little barrel, "extravecchio", and I KNOW that's on those labels cause I saw it.

And the prices (which I don't remember at this point), even at the source, were such that I decided what I bought last year was good enough! The couple from Scotland did buy a bottle of the 45 year old. I bought some jelly they make from the 4-year stuff "brew" for that stuff I was talking about. I think it will be real good with cheese...


vrmichie said...

There you go Chris... keep collecting, put it behind glass and in 150 years or so someone will be pointing out "priceless." And Mary Lynne, you are in the most OMG, OMG fascinating tour I've ever heard/read about. Don't know which is more amazing: the cheese or the balsamic but I'd love to sample them all and the pictures are great. Can't wait to hear about the prosciutto. And in the meantime we're getting ready for Sunday breakfast and entertaining K&P with some hotair balloons obligingly coming over the hills. Also had our first frost last night. Brrrr. xoxo

Christopher said...

I wonder what typical Italians (well, typical in the sense they buy 45-year old vinegar) generally, typically do with it?

Hi! said...

I know - the tour really was great! And I think Alessandro is going to become world famous - today when I was leaving my dear "landlady" she mentioned that a couple from Boston had just arrived for her other room and that they were taking his tour on Tuesday. I asked her if it was because she had recommended it (cause after hearing my report, she's going to start doing that) and she said no, they had signed up before. So sounds like he's on his way and that's nice - he sure puts his whole heart into it.

Mary Lynne

Hi! said...

Chris - I think it was mentioned (and if not, it's what I'd assume) that when it gets that old it is used more as a condiment (for lack of a better word), not for making like salad dressing where you mix it with the olive oil, maybe some herbs, etc. The whole point of the older balsamico I think is to savor it for what it is. A little drizzle on your cheese, a little drizzle on your ice cream, a little drizzle on your fruit, really, just a little drizzle on about anything you think you'd want it on.


January said...

Holy Mackenoli, this sounds incredible. And I think you're right about the older ones, Mama - just a little dab on some fruit and that sort of thing. Mmmmmmm...delicioso! I guess I got over-exceited reading about the cheese, because I realize now that your ham tour isn't up yet...but I'm looking forward to it. These are not boring at all, btw.

Hi! said...

January - sounds like you're becoming Italian with your holy mackeroli - that's what I do - just put an "i" on the end of everything. I did learn a nifty little phrase today which is "perche no" (pronounced paer' kay no) and means "why not?" And the reason I learned that is because the hotel lady here told me her favorite gelato place and it's called Perche No. So, perche no? I said and had some gelato. :)


Christopher said...

Perche no, indeed... I said the same thing (in English) at a frozen custard stand in Old Town yesterday... ;)

Hi! said...

But don't you think the frozen custard will taste even better now that you can say perche no, instead?

I know my gelato was pretty darned wonderful and the perche no probably added to the pleasure. :)


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