Eating in Italy often reveals everything we are doing wrong with food. We muddle dishes with too many ingredients. We use subpar ingredients. We lack patience. We want picture-perfect produce year-round and don’t pay enough attention to the seasons. We are wasteful. After every trip to Italy, I come back not only with a full stomach but with a fresh perspective on what I’m eating and where it comes from.
During a recent trip, a desire to learn about balsamic vinegar led me to the fertile region of Emilia Romagna, home to the city of Modena. Most of the balsamic found on grocery store shelves isn’t traditional balsamic at all, I learned, but is a combination of grape must and caramel coloring (check the label of the bottle in your kitchen, you might be surprised).
When I arrived at Acetaia Caselli in the suburbs of Modena, one of the first things the traditional balsamic producer Simone Caselli asked me was, “Are you sure you’ve tasted real balsamic vinegar before?” The certainty in his voice and the mischievous look in his eye made me doubt every balsamic drizzled tomato and mozzarella salad I’ve ever eaten.
I recently wrote about visiting this traditional balsamic producer in a story called “Real Balsamic is Rarer Than You Think” for Conde Nast Traveler. Simone brought me into the attic of his home where over 600 barrels contain balsamic that has been aging for decades. The oldest balsamic dates back to the 1920s. I learned how the area around the Po River provides ideal conditions for producing balsamic, including cold temperatures in the winter and warm, moist conditions in the summer.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is released in two ages: 12 years and 25 years, or extravecchio. How does Simone, who waits decades to taste the fruits of his labor prefer to enjoy balsamic? For the 12 year, he loves it on an omelette, and for the 25 year, a few drops over vanilla ice cream.