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The History of Balsamic Vinegar

This article explains the history of balsamic vinegar, including:

  • When and where balsamic vinegar was invented
  • Why balsamic vinegar was invented and for what purpose
  • The rivalry between the towns of Reggio and Modena
  • The role of the Estes family in the creation of balsamic vinegar
  • The difference between cheap, imitation balsamic and 'Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale'
  • How The Gift of Oil's balsamic vinegars are catagorized

Introduction to The History Of Balsamic Vinegar

Ten to fifteen years ago, balsamic vinegar was relatively unknown outside of Italy. Now due to the backing of celebrity chefs, exposure in gourmet food magazines and countless appearances on television cooking programmes there is hardly a household in the land without a bottle in the kitchen cupboard.

However, most of the bottles have been bought from a supermarket and consequently most people have still yet to taste truly authentic balsamic vinegar, or "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale" as it is known in Italian. For hundreds of years wealthy families in the small towns of Modena and Reggio just west of Bologna in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romanga, had been making balsamic vinegar for their own consumption. Families would nurture their supplies over the years, passing it on from generation to generation, gifting small amounts to esteemed friends and honoured guests and perhaps even bequeathing some to a daughter as part of her dowry.

Why is it called balsamic vinegar?

Balsamic vinegar actually derives its name from the word balm (rooted in the Latin balsamum), which refers to an aromatic resin or odour, as well as a substance that soothes, relieves or heals. But it wasn't until the 18th century, when the Estes family moved from Ferrara to Modena, that the term balsamico came to refer to the region's local speciality vinegars aged in wood.

When did people start making balsamic vinegar?

The making of refined wood aged vinegars in Emilia-Romanga can be traced back to the 11th century, when it was a Duchy ruled by the Este family. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the ruling class enjoyed such vinegars as a refined drink, which they believed to be a remedy for the plague.

The decline of the Estes family & Aceto Balsamico

When the Estes were finally ousted from power, aceto balsamico sank back into obscurity, a secret to the rest of the world and relatively unknown even to other Italians. However, it continued to be an important part of life in Modena and Reggio, where making balsamic was seen as an art form and its use was very symbolic.

How and when did people use balsamic vinegar in the past?

New barrels were started at the birth of a child and given away at weddings. Families would cherish their reserve, passed down through generations, giving away century-old vinegars only as a special gift to treasured friends, visiting dignitaries and doctors. Safe in the attic, slowly maturing into liquid gold despite the busy activity of life below, balsamic vinegar came to be considered a symbol of peace.

Balsamic Vinegar for the masses

This is how it remained year after year until about 1980 when a few more enlightened chefs in Italy discovered that balsamic vinegars' wonderfully intense flavours complemented modern Mediterranean cuisine so well. Awareness in Italy and abroad grew at a staggering pace.

Cheap imitations of balsamic vinegar

The popularity of balsamic soared, and local families couldn't gear up production to meet the new demand. This came to be met by new producers developing imitation versions. Within a few years, almost 1000 times more cheap commercial balsamic vinegar was being sold as the approved tradizionale. There are now four recognised different types of Balsamic Vinegar.

The rivalry between Modena and Reggio

Traditional producers from Modena and Reggio waged a campaign to distinguish themselves from their imitators. Over the next few years a fierce rivalry between the two towns developed, each town claiming to be the exclusive authority on true balsamic vinegar. Eventually, in 1987, after a long fight a truce was declared when both provinces were granted dual Domain of Control (DOC). From then on, only vinegars that had conformed to a decree written by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture could be called "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale", with consortiums in Modena and Reggio overseeing the certification and bottling of authentic balsamico.

Authentic balsamic vinegar, or "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale", can only be named as such if it has been certificated by either the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena or the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Reggio Emilia. To be awarded the consortium seal vinegars must have been made in the traditional artisanal method, been aged for a minimum of 12 years, and been produced in the provinces of Modena or Reggio.

Authentic 'Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale'

To be awarded the consortium seal vinegars must have been made in the traditional, artisanal method, been aged for a minimum of 12 years, and been produced in the provinces of Modena or Reggio. No wine vinegar or caramel can be added. Producers must bring their vinegar before a board of 5 expert tasters and pass tests for colour, density, aroma and taste. Only one-third of the vinegar submitted ever wins approval, which must be unanimous. Once the vinegar has been accepted, it is bottled in the presence of the producer and consortium members into distinctive 100ml bottles bearing the producer's label and the consortium's seal of guarantee.

The balsamic vinegar market today

Today commercial vinegars, or "industriale" as they are known by producers, account for more than 99% of the market. However sales of aceto balsamico tradizionale have increased in recent years as more consumers have discovered the benefits of authentic balsamic vinegar over imitation ones. In 1987 the consortium of Modena bottled 4,000 100ml bottles. By 1995, production had soared to 10,000 bottles!

The Gift of Oil's Balsamic Vinegars

Here at The Gift of Oil we stock a selection of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale ranging from 12 to 100 years old. These are produced by the Mussini family of Modena:

Our Classic and Reserve ranges of balsamic vinegar are categorised as  'Condimenti' balsamic vinegars, which are produced using traditional methods by The Verrini family but are sold when they are younger than the legally required 12 years. This means they are not as expensive as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, but are still premium quality.

Our Vintage balsamic is made by Mr Tagliavini on his estate in Modena, and is a 12 year old Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, but because it is bottled here in the UK rather than in front of the consortium in Modena, it is not allowed to be labelled as such.

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