Just like Enzo Ferrari and Luciano Pavarotti, Giovanni Leonardi has now become one of the town of Modena’s most celebrated men. His artisanal balsamic vinegars of 4 to 150 years old are some of Italian Gastronomy’s finest jewels.
In recent years balsamic vinegar has invaded our supermarket shelves and become the object of numerous imitations, flavoured with young wines and additives such as caramel and preservatives. Giovanni and his son Francesco are among the last small producers of authentic, additive-free Modena balsamic vinegar. Upon entering their vinegar store guarded by an army of wild peacocks, one enters a world of poetry dedicated to grapes, barrels and a great deal of time…
Modena balsamic vinegar is produced in one of the richest and earliest populated regions of Italy – Emilia-Romagna. Located between Lombardy to the north and Tuscany to the south west, this fertile region has an abundance of exceptional products such as parmigiano reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, culatello and zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter served with lentils). Whilst “fat” Bologna is a paradise for charcuterie and lasagnes, Modena is the undisputed home of traditional balsamic vinegar (even though the neighbouring province of Reggio claims to produce an equal quantity).
In this area of humid plains stretching south of the Po grapes are grown for the production of “mosto”, a syrup which is the basic ingredient of balsamic vinegar. The two main indigenous grape varieties cultivated for this purpose are lambrusco and trebbiano. The first has given its name to the famous sparkling red wine. The latter is a white grape with an attractive straw-yellow colour. Whilst the taste of the lambrusco variety is strong and spicy, trebianno is sweet and delicate with nuances of dried wildflowers. The vines are very prolific in this region and sometimes measure over two metres high, allowing the grapes to avoid the mold created by the soil’s moisture.
16 km southwest of Modena, near the river Secchia, the age-old Leonardi family estate has 7 hectares of vines. This is where, on a beautiful October day, we witnessed the grape harvest and pressing. The grape bunches are cut with secateurs and are laid into small containers whose contents are then emptied into a trailer that runs up and down the rows of vines. Francesco, who will one day manage the entire estate, checks to see that all the harvested grapes are healthy before driving the load to the press, where his father (who has just finished his siesta) awaits. With a face like a Roman tribune, Giovanni Leonardi is like the Modena’s living memory and his vinegar company founded in 1871 is a sort of museum with all kinds of tools and old barrels which bear the seal of the Countess Mathilda of Canossa (who died in 1115).
Despite a few recent technical improvements, there have been no fundamental changes in the process of making balsamic vinegar since the 18th century. The grapes are grazed then gently pressed so as not to crush the seeds. The resulting ‘mosto’ syrup is then conserved in a vat at a low temperature for one night. The following day it will be cooked for 72 hours in a cauldron heated to 85 degrees. The temperature shouldn’t exceed 90 degrees as this creates an excessive amount of caramelisation giving the vinegar a bitter taste that is impossible to remove. Once the cooking is complete the ‘mosto’, which has lost 70% of its initial volume, becomes a deliciously sweet and fragrant brown syrup. From this point onwards every vinegar maker in Modena has his own technique and style. Some pour the boiling must directly into large oak barrels whilst others pour it into glass cylinders where it spends the whole winter. At the Leonardi estate the mosto is put into stainless steel tanks outdoors where the cold prevents the fermentation of alcohol. The mosto is then transferred into large oak casks laid on the ground where it gets cut with older balsamic vinegars starting the slow process of fermentation which takes at least 4 to 7 years.
So why is it that balsamic vinegar matured for 50 to 150 years is richer and smoother than a vinegar matured for only 15 or 20 years? The reason is that the product needs time for all the nuances of its qualities to emerge. Indeed, here in Modena the ageing of balsamic vinegar is considered an art in itself. The barrels used are made of various precious woods such as chestnut, oak, cherry, juniper, but also ash, mulberry and acacia. In this way each producer decides which aromatic notes and tannins will be brought out and developed during the ageing process.
In the winter Giovanni Leonardi oversees the transferring and filling operations which take place in a loft with whitewashed walls. The ritual is always the same: starting with the smallest barrel, he first takes a few litres of the older balsamic vinegar which is immediately put in bottles. In its place he pours the youngest vinegar contained in the previous barrel and so on and so forth until he gets to the largest barrel. This is also ‘alimented’ with a young vinegar or a ‘mosto’ from that year. In this way the ageing of balsamics consists of this perpetual rotation which can last anything up to 100 or 150 years.
Balsamics are never stored down in a cellar. Instead they are subjected to huge differences in temperature, spending their lives in lofts open to the wind, where their characters are formed by freezing winters and hot summers.
“Once a balsamic is mature it’s like a mirror; you can see yourself in it,” says Giovanni.
To sample Leonardi’s balsamic vinegars the best way is to use a porcelain teaspoon, or as they do in Modena, pour a drop on to the back of your hand. The older the vinegar is, the more its texture becomes syrupy and dense with a colour ranging from dark brown to black. Upon contact with the tongue, the balsamic first reveals its velvety roundness, then it releases aromas of black cherry, resin, vanilla, liquorice, rose, truffle, which are all beautifully held together and concentrated. If one’s first impression is of a haunting caress, the second is more reminiscent of an outburst of energy as the acidity rises and takes over the palate.
Once you’ve had this experience, all that remains is to “tame” the balsamic by using it in any sauce that takes your fancy. The entire cuisine of Emilia-Romagna favours the use of Modena’s balsamic vinegar. As a starter, try it on a radicchio salad, along with Parmesan shavings, or on roasted asparagus seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper. There’s nothing like a few drops of balsamic vinegar on a plate of tortellini in bouillon, or on noodles, duck or culatello. The key is never to cook the vinegar, you simply add it to the dish after cooking so that the flavours remain intact.
Pumpkin gnocchi, spaghetti with grilled vegetables, roast chicken risotto with fennel, roast pork with apples and honey, marinated rabbit, grilled trout with grape sauce, octopus on a bed of rocket salad, pears, raspberries and aromatic herbs... In every case the Modena balsamic vinegar adds that extra touch of soul and an incomparable burst of energy.
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