A product of passion

A product of passion

by Janice Nigro

There are words that simply cannot be translated from one language to another. There are things or things we do that do not exist in other cultures. I wonder for example when the word for “ice” entered into Indonesian. There is no accurate translation for gelato-we call it ice cream, but even then you have to use the adjective Italian. Piazza is usually translated as a square. But some are round so my Italian friend refused to use the word “square” in English to describe our meeting place, which was a round piazza.

I should have asked him to try to translate the word “acetaia”. There is no word for acetaia in English. There isn’t even anything like an acetaia in the USA. Apparently acetaia is not even in the Italian dictionary. Acetaia is the place, maybe even a villa (another word left best untranslated), where vinegar, specifically balsamic vinegar, is made. I guess to be accurate it would be the loft in the villa.

Maybe like the word pizza, we just have to adopt it.

Everywhere in Europe there is evidence of long-term projects driven to completion by passion. Cathedrals, for example, took hundreds of years from conception to completion. Some have yet to be finished. If you look at the Acropolis today with so many cranes piecing it back together over so many years, you have to wonder how people 2000 years ago could be so patient to work on structures they might never see finished.

The kind of projects that would occupy a population over centuries no longer really exist, but those that require many years of heart and soul still do. Yes, skyscraping construction projects, movies perhaps, learning to be a heart transplant surgeon, and activities such as wine making, olive oil, and something I never had thought of before, traditional balsamic vinegar.

Vinegar. Vinegar is something located in the condiment aisle in the USA near the mustard that comes out of a squeeze bottle. It hardly seems rational then to yearn for some 100 mL bottle of a hundred year old so-called condiment, that is until you find out how it is made and how it tastes.

Balsamic vinegar, the traditional kind, is not the type of condiment that you find in the grocery store aisle. Not usually anyway. The making of it is a centuries old artisanal process (references to it are made as early as 1046 AD) which along with the land and vineyards was passed down from generation to generation probably until more recently. As you will see, it is pretty difficult to start such a business de novo, so an acetaia might be sold outside of the family if there is no one to take it over today.

Like many things in Italy, it is hard to reproduce anywhere else. According to Davide Lonardi, the owner of the acetaia we visited, the vinegar is characteristic only of this area of Italy, Modena and Emiglia Romana, because of the very microorganisms in the air there. Maybe there is something to the idea that Italian food is difficult to reproduce elsewhere because of the water (or air, etc.).

Let me start out by saying that this is not the kind of business you would decide to start up suddenly on your own, unless you were immortal. Traditional balsamic vinegar must be aged a minimum of 12 years, and it goes on up from there. But even before you get to start the production of the vinegar, you must have the grapes to do so. Vineyards take years to develop as well so there is a significant time investment before you even make your first bottle, if you start from nothing.

The only ingredient in traditional balsamic vinegar is grape juice made from white grapes of the region, Trebbiano. There is no other ingredient. Once the grapes are harvested and pressed, about 100 liters of juice are slowly heated and cooked down to approximately 60 liters over 24 hours. This heated juice or must is then added to the barrels in the batteria, a series of barrels of different sizes made of different types of wood, including ash, oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, and mulberry. Each year the volume that has evaporated is transferred from the largest barrel to the next and so on, and the largest barrel is replenished with fresh must. The smallest barrel is the last, and it is from this one that one liter of vinegar can be tapped after a minimum of 12 years.

If you can last the 12 years and then another 13, then you can sell traditional balsamic vinegar that is 25 years old-also called stra-vecchio. After that, the age is considered imprecise because of the transfer process of the liquid, but you can find traditional balsamic vinegar that has been in the making for nearly 100 years.

There is a whole ceremony to the bottling of the balsamic vinegar. The taste must be approved by a consortium and then only a volume of 100 mL is aliquoted into a specific shaped bottle with a colored label signifying whether it is 12 or 25 years old. So after a minimum 12 year investment, it is possible that the product might not be good enough. It is as Davide said, only something you can do if you have a passion for it. He is third generation in a family that was producing the vinegar more or less for the use of friends and family, so he knew he had a good product before making it a business.

The batteria are located in the loft of the building, close to the roof where there is maximal temperature change between winter and summer unlike for wine which is in the cellar. The vinegar has a delightful aroma, but at first overpowering, if you can imagine a room filled with around 60 barrels of evaporating vinegar and no fume hood.

We did not leave without tasting the product. First in spoons and then on ice cream. I understood the cost now. Davide told us that he had not taken a holiday since 1996. He was anxiously waiting for his nephews to become old enough to take over the business so that he could see a bit more of the world away from his estate.

It is fun to think about how many years and how many hands were used for the production of one bottle of stra-vecchio balsamic vinegar that we came home with. That one drop you taste on a spoon has years of careful handling, nurturing really, perhaps by many people over generations. It was a lesson to take back into my own work. At the end of our visit at Acetaia Villa di San Donnino, I felt that the NIH should take a trip over there in order to realize that three year grants are insufficient for the development of science projects worth doing today. Some things are worth waiting for.

©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

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