The History of Balsamic Vinegar
How did select balsamic vinegars, like Villa Bellentani and Masserie di Sant’Erame of Modena come about? True Balsamic Vinegar is steeped in culinary history with strong Italian cultural ties. This gourmet condiment has been associated with a myriad of superstitions, legends and politics. In Medieval times, balsamic vinegar was valued for its healing properties. The name is a derivation of the word ‘balm’, which in turn is derived from the Latin term ‘balsamum’ that refers to an aromatic resin and something that acts as a reliever or healer with soothing properties. The correct name for authentic balsamic vinegar is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale in Italian. It has not achieved global popularity until recently. In fact, until thirty years ago, balsamic vinegar was nearly unheard of outside Italian boundaries. Prosperous Italian families of the small towns of Modena and Reggio in the Emilia Romagna region (lying west of Bolgna), had been producing this rare delicacy for over a thousand years, but it was never for commercial use. In earlier days, the families cared for the vinegar, perfected it over years and passed it on as a treasured heirloom. They presented small vials to their special friends and even bequeathed it to their daughters as a valuable part of her dowry.
The ancient art of making a sweet condiment from grape juice dates back centuries. Romans invented the art of making ‘sapa,’ a mixture made from boiled down grape juice. Refined wood â€“ vinegars have been produced in Emilia Romagna since as early as the 11th century. At that time, Emilia Romagna, was a nominal domain that was ruled by the Este family. During the later part of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance era, the nobility enjoyed the different varieties of vinegar as a refined drink. They believed the vinegar was a natural remedy for the plague. Around the 18th century, the Este family shifted base from Ferrara to Modena. It was then that the term balsamico began to be used for the regional specialty vinegar that had been aged in wooden barrels, to imbibe its aroma. By the turn of the 19th century, balsamico was considered a precious commodity. Modena’s Archduke Francesco IV was famous among the Heads of State from Paris to Moscow for his special Aceto del Duca. He always presented it as a symbol of friendship. The Este family reign ended when his son was overthrown but lore has it that he escaped with barrelfuls of his signature elixir.
With the end of the Este family reign, the aceto balsamico faded into oblivion unbeknownst to the rest of the world, including those in other parts of Italy. Nevertheless, in the small towns of Modena and Reggio, the secret recipes were kept alive by the wealthier families who made the balsamico for personal use. Making perfect balsamico was considered a form of art and even had symbolic ties to many of the Italian families. For example, new barrels were started when a child was born and then given away at the wedding.
The Italian families treasured their reserves of balsamico and handed it down through generations. They presented the older vinegars (especially century old ones) only on very special occasions to their near and dear ones, doctors or sometimes to visiting dignitaries.
Balsamico was stored in the family attic and tended to as meticulously as an other facet of the family estate, as it slowly matured into a liquid gold. Balsamico came to be a symbol of peace and an extension of the hand of friendship from one family to another, and from one friend to another.
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