By ANNE MARSHALL ZWACK; ANNE MARSHALL ZWACK is a writer who has lived in Florence most of her life.
Published: January 03, 1988
In Modena, until not long ago, a girl could hope to find a husband only if she could make pasta and if her dowry included a little barrel of balsamic vinegar. Eating well is very important in Modena, hometown of Luciano Pavarotti and Ferrari cars, as it is in next-door Bologna and throughout the region of Emilia-Romagna, the gastronomic heartland of Italy.
Balsamic vinegar may be relatively new to stores and menus in the United States, but around Modena they have been making it for centuries – it is mentioned in documents as early as 1046. Lucrezia Borgia recommended balsamic vinegar to alleviate the pain of childbirth, and during the French Revolution it was included in the auctions of luxury goods confiscated from aristocrats. Indeed, some balsamic vinegar has actually been around for centuries. Many families in the region have in their attic a batteria, or set of working vinegar barrels, that has been handed down from generation to generation for over 100 years, and the dukes of Este -the noble family that held sway over the Duchy of Modena throughout much of its history – were said to have aged vinegar for up to 360 years.
Climate is one reason that this vinegar, known as balsamic because of its curative properties, has always been made in Modena. Extremes of temperature are essential to its production, and Modena has the requisite hot and humid summers and very cold winters; in one recent, but admittedly exceptional year, the temperatures were so extreme that they ranged from 31 degrees below zero Fahrenheit to 100 above. The low-lying landscape is another reason, since it is said that making balsamic vinegar is impossible above an altitude of about 2,300 feet.