Balsamic Mystery & Magic

by Hal Trussell

Under my feet, the sticky goo snapped and crackled with every step.  All around me, thick dark liquid seeped from 400 year old barrels.  A golden road to heaven, dark brown and sticky.  

Stanley had his Livingston, Burton had his Nile, Scott and Perry their Poles.  Now I had found what I was looking for: the origin of balsamic vinegar.

In 1605, Giuseppe Giusti of Modena, Italy was registered as the only man who made Balsamic Vinegar.  Four hundred and three years later, I was tasting from a barrel that he probably infused with vinegar himself.

It is impossible to know who first discovered the process, since vinegar was well-known and consumed by the Romans.  But what Signore Giusti did to his aged vinegar was so unique and so desirable, that barrels of his balsamic were included in the dowry of post-renaissance brides along with gold, silk, and gunpowder.

Some go to Italy to see the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum, some to see the canals of Venice, others the museums of Florence.  But here I was, last October, going to Italy to find the origins of Balsamic Vinegar.  (All right, to be fair, I had already seen the other wonders on previous trips.)

It was late in the day as the train pulled into the small station.  There were no taxis.  No one to ask directions.

I had no hotel reservation, not even a name.  I hardly had any sense of where to go. I knew I wanted to stay in the historic center, and thus cast myself onto the ocean of fate.  

Over the tops of the buildings I could see a tall medieval bell-tower.  I presumed it was on the historic piazza and walked in that direction.  The sun was beginning to set.  Shadows lengthened with each passing moment and the sky began to fill with colors. 

The wheels to my suitcase clattered as I crossed cobblestone streets whose sidewalks were framed by arches and columns. Emerging from a narrow passageway,  I suddenly found myself in the expanse of a great plaza, the Piazza Grande. 

I stopped in awe.  Cobblestones expanded outward over what in Roman times had been the marketplace. Before me was the heart of an ancient city.

This grand piazza was anchored by an enormous 13th century stone duomo, the medieval soul of the city, now wrapped in fading light, standing against a spectacular sunset.  The piazza was quiet, the grand duomo exuding strength and durability; the brooding clouds, blue, fiery orange, and purple welcoming me.  At that moment I knew this trip was charmed.


Little frequented by American tourists, Modena is an ancient city.  Known as Mutina in Roman times, the city was an important crossroads of trade.  Originally a fertile marsh, it was first settled around 600 BCE by the Etruscans.  They were driven out by the Gauls, who were in turn succeeded by the Romans.

The patron Saint is San Germinianus, also known as San Gimignano.  (Yes, that famous Medieval town is Tuscany is named after him.)  He was a fourth century Bishop of Modena.  The grand duomo here in Modena was built in his honor, and his bones rest securely deep in its depths.  What endears San Germinianus to all Modena to this day is the belief that around the year 385, as the Attila and the Huns were nearby planning to attack and lay waste to Mutina, the good Bishop  conjured a dense fog and the city was saved.  The Huns could not find Modena, and instead moved south to attack Rome. If there ever was a modern culture dedicated to an ancient shaman, this was it.

Soon I was to learn that same ancient magic continues in Modena today, in dark wooden barrels stored in drafty attics.  Pick up a bottle of balsamic vinegar and look at the label.  Real balsamic will always say two very important words: traditional and Modena (or Reggio Emilia).  If the label does not have these both of these exact words, then that special magic is missing.

Two days later, rested in the grand dame of hotels, the Canal Grande, somewhat recovered from my jet lag, I take a taxi to Giusti’s headquarters in a rural area outside of the city, where I am greeted by Claudio Stefani, head of the small company and a direct descendent of the original Giuseppe.

Fashionably unshaven, his wavy hair tousled and tie loose around his neck, Claudio is full of youthful energy that accelerates the moment he enters his attic. Surrounded by dark aged barrels, his eyes shine.  “The wood needs to be very old,” he says, walking over to a barrel and caressing it.  “The older, the better.“ He points to the thick iron strap. “Look, this one hand-beaten by a blacksmith.”

Following centuries of family tradition, Claudio was shown as a child how to distinguish the age of a barrel and where it was made by the style, the wood, the cut.  “And then we would taste the 100 year old balsamic inside,” he laughs. “So you can see, I grew up drinking the very best.” Removing the cheese cloth that covers the small opening on top, he inhales deeply.  A smile bursts across his face, “Umm, this balsamico, 40, perhaps 50 years old.  We taste.” 

He draws the dark thick liquid into a glass siphon, then fills a small tasting glass.  It looks like maple syrup, only darker.  The smell is sweet, musty, like a mysterious woman’s enchanting perfume.  I take a sip, amazed at how savory and smooth it is on my tongue, with no bite or sharpness in my throat.  I am tantalized by the slightly pungent flavor.  Like the mysterious woman, it makes me long for more. 

My exotic dream is interrupted as Claudio introduces me to Gianni, an expert in all things balsamico.  Gianni oversees all the barrels, and is very proud to explain that it was always his dream to work for the oldest balsamic company in the world.  Like a vintner of rare wine, he is constantly checking the flavor, blending where necessary, marking barrels with chalk, maintaining a wonderfully complex inventory of very old balsamic.  No one even knows their exact age, he says, because they are mixed reserves, but it is safe to say the liquid inside is easily more than a hundred years old.

The classic method of making balsamic is the battery process.  “A battery” being the term for a group of barrels of declining size, each smaller than the one preceding, allowing for the evaporation of 5 to 10% of the contents each year.  The more dense the vinegar, the less evaporation.  Every year the contents of one cask are transferred to the next smaller one.  Each cask itself made from a different wood.  Softer woods are used at the beginning of the process, harder woods at the end when the liquid is more dense.  Each wood imparting its own special flavor, color, and perfume into the balsamic.

Claudio explains that because of the centuries of flavoring already in his reserves, they no longer start new batteries.  Instead Gianni takes some of the dense older stock and adds it to a younger mix.  Both men rely on their cumulative handed-down experience and constantly check flavors and woods.  The result is a series of barrels full of old and intensely flavored balsamic.

I look around me. The main attic is a gigantic storage room, with several smaller interconnecting rooms filled with barrels of all sizes and shapes — large, oblong, squat. There are more than 600 barrels in these rooms, some of them dating from 1598.  

All the casks have a hole on top, with a cheesecloth square covering the hole.  The circulation of air is very important to the aging process, and affords evaporation, which thickens the balsamic and intensifies the flavors.

At one end of the dark attic large open doors, welcome the hot summers and cold winters that are the cycle of seasons in this part of Italy.  Extreme changes in temperature in the attic enhances and accelerates the catalytic activities adding still more complexity to the flavor.

Because traditional balsamic only gets better with age, the older the barrel the greater its value.  These older wooden barrels have become infused at the cellular level with the vinegar that has sat in them for centuries, continuing to age, developing ever increasing complexity and texture .  That’s why barrels are never thrown out, no matter how much they begin to leak.  In fact, the old barrels are so valuable, that when the leaking gets too bad, they simply build a new barrel around the old one.  Claudio notes that he has a few barrels that are so old and precious that they have two barrels around them. Talk about a prize capital asset!

I share with the two men my taste-metaphor of an earthy mysterious woman.  This naturally encourages their Italian blood to search out more, older barrels so they can further test my analogy first hand. And so our afternoon continues, winding our way through more than 600 barrels and 4 centuries of dark magic, family history, as we stop at barrels with certain chalk marks, contemplate mysterious women, and taste the exquisite elixir inside.

Claudio and Gianni are both very happy men.  Who wouldn’t be, if every day you got to go to heaven?  Even if that golden road turns out to be dark brown and sticky.  After all, everyone’s heaven is a little different.