Cheese and vinegar. Or do you need more reasons to visit Italy?

Of course I’m not talking about just any random cheese and vinegar. I mean traditional balsamic vinegar and cheese that goes by the name parmigiano regiano which is a universe away from what you’re used to calling parmesan. These two were the reasons for our recent trip to Modena.

The region around Modena is nothing to write home about. The area is flat and relatively dull, totally different from what I was picturing in my mind when I was searching for a cozy B&B for the weekend. But there’s one thing that immediately catches the eye – roads are lined with bountiful vegetable fields and orchards. One can only asume that the true richness of the region must lie elsewhere: in its produce and the ingenuity of people to turn it into the most delightful food.

Our journey of gastronomic exploration began at the modern Caseificio 4 Madonne cheese factory. I’ve been a huge fan of parmigiano reggiano for a long time. The facts that we learned during our visit turned me into an admirer forever:

It takes 600 l of milk to produce one wheel of parmigiano reggiano. This makes approximately 16 litres of best quality milk per each kilo of cheese. All cheese factories, members of the Consortium overseeing the production, use the same recipe and must observe the same high standards . These go in such detail as determining the cows’ diet and the duration of time milk is allowed to travel from farm to factory.  The only way to tell cheeses from different dairies apart is the registration number pressed into the outer edge of the wheel, along with dotted inscription »parmegiano reggiano«.

Cheese can be called parmigiano reggiano only after 12 months of ageing. And some wheels never  make it, eventhough they require almost as much care as a baby for the whole year. If the expert from the Consortium decides the cheese doesn’t make the right sound when hit by a tiny hammer, it doesn’t meet the high standard. Any such wheel is not worthy of a fire-branded stamp, proving its absolute quality, but gets engraved with parallel lines signalling that it’s only a second-tier parmigiano and should be sold as soon as possible or otherwise processed.

Pre-packaged grated cheese is probably not parmigiano reggiano. In Italy it is possible to have your big chunk of cheese grated in a shop but usually only second-tier parmigiano is sold pre-packaged and grated. The thing that you’ve been buying at home because you’re too lazy to grate it yourself is most definitely not parmigiano reggiano but some generic cheese, possibly not even produced in Italy. Italy exports only about a third of their annual parmigiano reggiano production, the rest is consumed in the country. No wonder why the pasta tastes so good.

Parmigiano reggiano storage
There’s a whole fortune in this storage, keeping over 33,000 cheese wheels.

If you’re not pakcing your bags yet, continue reading. Our next stop was Acetaia Giusti, claiming to be the oldest balsamic vinegar producer in Modena, dating back to 1602. Here we learned about the meticulous process of aceto balsamico production.

Aceto balsamico is aged in five to seven barrels of varying sizes and wood types. The barrels themselves are a real fortune. The older they are, the more refined is the taste that vinegar obtains while ageing. Different types of wood give different characteristics and aromas while the vinegar is being moved from barrel to barrel.

Aceto balsamico barrels
The barrels are stored in the attic, where high summer temperatures cause the vinegar to evaporate. Notice that they are all open, covered only with a lace cloth.

It is impossible to determine the exact age of aceto balsamico. As the vinegar evaporates from open barrels, they are refilled with vinegar from the next bigger barrel, thus slowly moving the aromatic aceto to the smallest barrel.  Once a year only a small amount of aceto balsamico from the last barrel is extracted and bottled, the biggest barrel is filled with newly cooked grape must and the process continues. To preserve the complex tastes of matured vinegar, the barrels in one batch are rarely completely emptied.

360 EUR for 100 ml of traditional aceto balsamico. And you thought perfume was expensive? To produce traditional balsamico they only use cooked grape must, without adding any wine vinegar. Aged for at least 12 and up to 100 years the end result is a thick, full bodied vinegar that should be consumed in drops. Not only because of the high price, but also to fully enjoy its rich and complex taste. It would be a shame to pour it over a salad, but it will complement aged parmigiano reggiano to perfection.

Traditional aceto balsamico

Now, this doesn’t sound like such a lame excuse for a weekend of spending money on copious amounts of delicatessen anymore, right? So why don’t you start planning your trip to Modena while I get me some parmigiano with a few drops of balsamico.