While balsamic vinegar maker, Mariangela Montanari, was in town, she sat down with Michael Harlan Turkell at Heritage Radio. Here is the full recording of Episode 343 of The Food Seen + the transcript below.
Michael Harlan Turkell: Today is a special treat for me, because I have in studio a woman that I got to visit during my book Acid Trip. In Modena, in Italy. One of two towns in the world that can actually make balsamic vinegar. We are going to define what balsamic vinegar is and the difference between DOP, the tradizionale, and the IGP, the not tradizionale. But first let’s start with Mariangela, born in Modena under the sign of vinegar. What is the sign of vinegar? Was it zodiac? Was it the stars?
Mariangela Montanari: It’s blood, running through the people born in Modena. You know that when when a baby girl is born in Modena they start a series for the production of traditional balsamic vinegar and the series, the batteria as we call it, is given as a dowry to the girls when they get married.
MHT: So it’s matriarchal? Is it mothers making it for their daughters?
MM: No, it’s not only women, but the tradition was for the women to have a dowry from the original family.
MHT: First of all balsamic vinegar is the most ubiquitous, most well known vinegar around the world. But it wasn’t up to the 1970s, this was something that was familiar. Made for the family within the family. When did that change and why?
MM: The traditional one started its run towards the market at the beginning of the 80s, when a group of families joined together and they made at first the consortium to obtain a law recognition for the product, thus in 1983 the traditional balsamic vinegar was given its first law of production.
MHT: I can’t believe that 1983 it’s the first presence of that. Because it does feel so engrained and not just in Italian culture, but in American cuisine and cuisines around the world.
MM: The traditional perhaps the most ancient product of Modena it’s really deep rooted in the culture of the city, but it has always been like you were saying before something related to families, passed on from a generation to the other. But the traditional one is something really belonging to the family matter.
MHT: I want to talk about time. It takes a while to make balsamic vinegar. And it is an extraneous vinegar out of any other that I experienced around the world. Grape must is boiled down to a certain percentage and its’ fermented in a series of wooden barrels. It’s wild to be in Modena in the land of slow food and fast cars and see something so authentic still be authentic.
MM: Yes, one of the most peculiarity is that our vinegar is made from cooked grape juice, so it’s a vinegar which is born completely sweet. When you come in the autumn and take part of the harvest, and the pressing and the cooking of the must, you really smell this sweet perfume in our courtyard and it’s unbelievable that this sweet liquid will turn in something that is sweet, sour, in perfect balance and it’s a very long process. The minimum aging is 12 years old, and then you have the Extra Vecchio which is a minimum of 25 years of aging through this series of decreasing volume barrels made of different kind of wood that give nuances and flavor to the product.
MHT: Do you laugh at wine makers… ah you are going to have a product next year, I have to wait 12 years to make a product. Because you are also kind of one of few, actually the only one that I have met, that grows their own grapes.
MM: Yes we have a vineyard, 8 hectares and a half of vineyard in the hills around Vignola where I live and we cultivate all the grapes we use to make our products. The family production is all based on cooked grape must. You know, when we decided the name for the Acetaia, which is the house of the grandfather, La Ca dal Non, because it was this tradition of cultivating grape, making the must, it started with my great grandfather. It’s something which is dated back a long time ago.
MHT: I’ve been lucky enough to visit your estate. There is so much history, not just steeped in that building and beautiful courtyard, but there are barrels, there are batterias that are owned by family members or were begun by family members of yours. There is one in specific of your grandmother.
MM: Yes, you mean Demetria. Demetria was my grandmother and we have a special vinegar dedicated to her which is aged, the final finishing barrel of the series is a wild juniper barrel. So the product is very resinous in your mouth, for long it stays in your nose and it gives you this long and lasting flavor which is amazing.
MHT: You know, I wish people could have seen you close your eyes and recount that, because it’s so excellent to see you recall the memory of not only something like a vinegar, but you recalling your grandmother. There is much character in every bottle of balsamic that you make that that is what makes it familiar to me, that is what makes it more part of the family than this IGP. And we will talk about what IGP is in a second, but DOP, Tradizionale, how do you know you are getting that, what on the bottle states that is truly balsamic vinegar of Modena.
MM: The special shape of the bottle. The traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is bottled in a bottle which is unique for law for all the producers, square based and round as a shape and it’s 100ml. It states Traditional Balsamic Vinegar on it and each bottled is sealed and numbered and before being bottled each batch of product is tested and approved to be called Traditional Balsamic vinegar. Otherwise it can’t be bottled in its special bottle. The bottle was designed by Giugiaro, because we are a land where cars are always mixed with food.
MHT: I wanted to find the difference between DOP tradizionale, the real, and I’m NOT air quoting, the real, real vinegar vs what we see on supermarket shelves here today.
MM: The Aceto balsamico di Modena, so the balsamic vinegar of Modena is an IGP, a geographical indication, it is composed of wine vinegar to give it the sour part, added with cooked grape must and possibly a 2% of caramel to stabilize the color. It’s a product which is born in Modena again and it is produced in very high quantity. It’s a completely different product, meaning that traditional balsamic vinegar you really use as a finishing, as a perfume, it is sort of a jewel in that sense, produced in a very very limited quantity. Last year among Modena and Reggio Emilia production of 10,000 liters, so basically nothing. It’s very special for the culture of the city.
MHT: Yeah, I mean it is a billion dollar industry, balsamic. And .000001% is this DOP, and as you stated it is a jewel. It is something to have and to cherish. And I always thought it was a bit of a joke, a little bit BS, you know that you put a little balsamic on top of parmigiano and that’s the only way you eat it. No, you should be able to cook with it, but this is a product that has aged a minimum of 12 years, so it is perfect as it is. So why ruin it? Why apply heat? Why do anything that alters what you have done for so long nurturing it to that point. And Parmigiano is from there as well and I think the Modenese way is about cultivating all the culture there, pairing things together.
MM: Yeah, when of the best way to use the product is straight on the spoon. Meaning that you use it as an aperitif to open your mouth before eating. Or as a digestive. And the striking thing about Traditional balsamic vinegar is that you use in drops. So, it’s a product that lasts for many, many, many times and you can really use some drops to change the perfume of your dishes, to make a very normal dish something really special. Do you remember when you came we made onion omelette? Which is something that is the most easy thing in the world and some drops of vinegar, some drops of 12 years just change the world of what you were eating in fact.
MHT: It really does. It makes, not ordinary, but it makes simple things extraordinary. We might as well have an aperitif while we have it in front of us, I mean let’s have a spoonful. Is there a specific way that I should be pouring and enjoying? Or will I just get it once I have it?
MM: You put it on your spoon and then you just put it on the tip of your tongue and let it flow all to your tongue so that you get the sweetness, and then little by little the acidity. And the striking thing about the Extra Aged is that it has a very very complete and complex body in your mouth and it is perfectly round in its flavor, so you feel the sweetness, you feel the acidity and they are all together. And they are really really long lasting in your mouth.
MHT: All of that is true. (chuckles) It’s like that Heinz commercial, you know, slowly like the ketchup coming out of the bottle, you have to wait for it, I mean you don’t have to wait that long for something that is made 12+ years. And yes we did talk about traditional parings like parmigiano, but you were also one of the most inventive cooks I have ever seen. And whether it’s your travelling or your husband’s travelling, I think you are influenced by the world as a whole and not just limited to what balsamic means to Modena. So what else have you cooked with balsamic? And what goes well with that flavor?
MM: Let’s start with the easy things. About parmigiano we have already spoken, about the onion omelet we spoke already, you can pair it in a very simple way, it is quite traditional in fact with very simple flavors like: parmigiano risotto, or you can make some raw vegetables with traditional balsamic vinegar, red radicchio with traditional balsamic vinegar. Then we come to something which is not so traditional, so fish. Octopus salad with traditional balsamic vinegar, king prawns, if you have very very big king prawns, you can just grill them and then you serve it with some salt, drizzle it traditional balsamic vinegar and pair with salad with orange and fennel, It’s fantastic.
MHT: Can I have another dose, another sip of this extra Vecchio? It’s transportive.
MM: It gives addiction, yes I know.
MHT: I went to a restaurant in Italy and it did, it said: “Not just as aperitif”, at the end of the meal I think there were three things: a cookie, a gelato, and the third was a spoonful of vinegar because it is something that helps with digestion.
MM: It is. Yes, for sure, for sure, for sure. It really cleans your mouth and leaves a very long and flavorful sensation.
MHT: What are you doing in the US? What are you trying to do to change the concept of what balsamic means to cooks around the world?
MM: First of all, I’m trying to make people understand why traditional balsamic vinegar is different. How can you use it, how can you pair it with very easy foods to give a new concept of, to give new preciousness to what it is. One of the most important things, especially here, I think is to make people understand that natural products, natural flavors, are better than anything else.
MHT: Agreed. I stand by that completely. And you do, you feel that when you taste that, you know that it’s something that has been made slowly and perfected over time, unlike those balsamic glazes that you see in other supermarkets and stores. I want to go back to the core of what balsamic is. It’s this familiar thing, it’s this gift, it was this dowery that was given away. So it is always thought as this special thing, and so special that you only want to use it here and there. But it can be an everyday thing, right?
MM: Yes. For example in our production we have also something easier to use if you want to use, which is a product we make, it’s a family recipe, and we call it Balsamo Saba because we are using Saba which is the basis of this tradition in the preparation. This is a product which you can use every day just to make simply your salad or to cook. This is in a way, an easier product to make. Do you remember what is Saba?
MHT: Yes, it’s the unfermented juice.
MM: Yes, it’s the sweet thing.
MHT: But it’s something which goes direct to market, unlike balsamic which again gets aged underneath your roof for that many years. You know, I prefer DOP, and it’s not be a balsamic snob or anything like that, but I was crunching numbers about what DOP Balsamic really is. You have a 100ml bottle, and as you said before, you have a drop. And a drop costs very little relative to what you think of as other ingredients in dishes from truffles, to caviar, to some of the other luxuries in life. Even simple things like good butter, a knob of good butter costs almost as much if not more than a drop of balsamic vinegar. I feel that Balsamic has a bigger effect. I want to break people’s ideas of a tradizionale being an expensive bottle of vinegar.
MM: No, It’s not expensive, because it’s just a drop. It’s like using an Eau de Parfume, instead of an Eau de Toilette. It’s just a drop that changes your dish.
MHT: And it also comes in a similar looking bottle I guess. But please, if anyone wants to experience Traditional DOP Balsamic stop by Mariangela’s place in Modena. If you cant’ it’s distributed here in the US through Gustiamo.com. Share it amongst your friends. This is isn’t something that you keep in your pantry for 5, 10 years and wait for special occasions. This is something that makes every ordinary occasion special.