A third-generation producer of traditional balsamic vinegar and a steward of this tradition: meet David Lonardi of Acetaia Villa San Donnino
Davide Lonardi of Acetaia Villa San Donnino in Modena, Italy is a third-generation producer of traditional balsamic vinegar. The condiment is made from the region’s white Trebbiano grape juice, and has been produced in Modena since the Middle Ages. The earliest mention of the product dates to a 1046 account of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III being given a silver bottle containing the celebrated vinegar while on his way to his coronation. Historical records also show that the product was much appreciated by the House of Este, the princely dynasty that ruled the Emilia Romagna part of Northern Italy during the Renaissance; today traditional balsamic vinegar is highly valued by modern chefs and gourmet food lovers.
There are very strict guidelines on how this ancient dressing must be made. The only ingredient in traditional balsamic vinegar is grape “must”—the pure juice from whole pressed grapes. Custom demands that the grapes are harvested as late as possible to take advantage of the warmth that nature provides there. This cultural delicacy is so cherished that traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena was granted a protected designation of origin (PDO) by the European Union in 2000. The Italian Ministry of Agriculture in 2009 designated Consorzio Tutela ABTM (Consortium for Protection of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) to run controls and to supervise manufacturing.
Davide enjoys and takes seriously his own heritage as a steward of this tradition. Enjoy this "taste" of what's involved in making Modena's claim to fame!
Meg: Italian cuisine is world renown and it seems a reason it is so extraordinary is the care taken to ensure all the ingredients are fresh and of the highest quality. As someone who produces a product that is a staple of the Italian table, can you share your thoughts on what makes Italian food so special and the describe the role of food in Italian culture?
Davide: In my opinion, what makes Italian food so special and somuch appreciated all around the world is the tradition and history behind every single product and recipe. The passion of the people who make a product or prepare a recipe. And the attention to the quality and genuinity of the ingredients used. But keeping everything simple. Italian food contains all of these characteristics. It is at the same time tasty, simple, fresh and genuine.
But what makes it even more special is its role and purpose. Food is part of our life, not only what we need to feed ourselves. Its purpose is to gather people. For us to eat means preparing the meal, staying together, sitting around the table, chatting, sipping a glass of wine, sharing food and our stories with our family and friends. Lunch and dinner are moments of conviviality that must never be missed.
Meg: While visiting Acetaia Villa San Donnino we participated in a tasting of its balsamic vinegar--which included products that were aged for six years, 12 years and 25 years. Can you describe the production process?
Davide: The product can only contain one ingredient, cooked grape must from Trebbiano or Lambrusco, respectively a white and a red grape from the Modena area.
When grapes are ready they are harvested, pressed to extract their must, which is immediately cooked, before the fermentation starts. The must cooks very slowly for about 24 hours. Then it is put into the wooden barrels for the aging . To start the production of traditional balsamic vinegar, it is necessary to have a “batteria”, which means a set of minimum five wooden barrels, each one of a different size and capacity. Six types of woods can be used: chestnut, cherry, oak, mulberry, juniper and ash.
The first year, all the wooden barrels in the batteria are filled with the same cooked must. Every year part of the product in the wooden barrels evaporates and the balsamic is transferred from barrel to barrel in order to refill them from the product evaporated. This process goes on for minimum 12 years and over.
The regulation recognizes two kinds of balsamic vinegar, depending on their minimum ageing: 12 years or 25 years. The two products are different in flavor, smell and thickness. The thickness, for example, becomes more elevated if the product is older. Aging more the product reduces and concentrates. On the other hand, thickness is not always synonym of aged: a product can be thick even without being very old.
Concerning the smell, it gets more intense when the product is older, the acidity less aggressive. As for the taste, a more aged balsamic vinegar will be stronger in flavor, more complex, but at the same time smoother. Even the perception of the acidity will decrease when the balsamic gets more aged.
The type of wood used effects and characterizes the product: for example, cherry wood gives a more fruity flavor, juniper a more aromatic flavor, chestnut is more important for the color. For this reason it is better that a batteria contains different types of wood, so the result will be a blend of several flavors and fragrances.
Meg: During the tasting, we had balsamic vinegar on top of ice cream--a combination that would never occur to most Americans! Can you describe the role of balsamic vinegar in Italian cuisine and the variety of ways it is used?
Davide: Usually the commercial balsamic vinegar is mostly connected to the use on the salad or combined with olive oil to dip the bread. Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, instead, has a big variety of ways to be used, very often combinations that people would never expect. It can be used on different kinds of dishes, savory and sweet, cold or warm, with light or stronger flavors. Traditional balsamic vinegar is great on any kind of meat, fish, cheese (for example Parmigiano), on pasta, risotto, grilled vegetables, strawberries, gelato (ice-cream). To take advantage of its great nutritional properties and to exalt its aroma and flavor in the best way, it is important to use it only at the end of the preparation, natural, without cooking it. Few drops of it on the finished dish are enough and perfect to give the flavor to a recipe.
History of Villa San Donnino & meaning of the term Acetaia
Meg: What is the history of Acetaia Villa San Donnino?
Davide: I am the third generation in my family of balsamic vinegar producers. My grandfather started the family production in 1947, when he purchased the property. The tradition was handed down from my grandfather to my father, then from my father to me. I was born and grew up watching my father and grandfather doing this, so making balsamic vinegar is not only a business for me but overall a passion and part of my life. For my grandfather and father the balsamic vinegar making remained something just for the family and friends use and as a passion.
In the beginning of 2000 together with my wife Cristina I decided to turn my passion, experience and expertise into a business. So I became part of the Consortium and started new “batterias” of barrels in order to be able to sell my product as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP. Of course I was able to have some product already good and ready thanks to the investment, work and time my family had put into it. Currently, the production of Acetaia Villa San Donnino for the DOP product (minimum 12 and minimum 25 year old) is about 350 liters per year, which means about 3500 bottles per year.
The term "Acetaia" is not recognized in the Italian dictionary and in fact there is not any exact translation of it into other languages. However, the use of this term has consolidated and is widespread in the Modena and Reggio Emilia area.
For sure, the origin of it is connected to the term "aceto", meaning vinegar in English. In fact, it represents the spot dedicated to the long production and aging process of the "aceto", more particularly "aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena", meaning traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. The loft as the site to age the balsamic vinegar is optimal for the production of this specialty, as the change of temperature between day and night, summer and winter is necessary to turn it into balsamic vinegar.
We could say the acetaia represents for balsamic vinegar what wine cellars represent for the wine. Historically, acetaias were located in the loft or attic of country villas or city palaces. In fact, until a couple of centuries ago, the production of balsamic vinegar was restricted to the aristocratic class and wealthy families. For the last two centuries the acetaia have been diffusing much more even among other social classes and nowadays it is very common to find one in any part of the two provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Our activity is especially aimed at promoting and raising awareness of the product in people both in Italy and abroad. There is still a lot to do to increase the knowledge about the traditional balsamic vinegar all around the world and our main satisfaction is when our guests leave the Acetaia with an acquaintance and more respect of the product.
Meg: I know Acetaia Villa San Donnino is part of a consortium of balsamic vinegar producers. Can you explain the qualifications required to be a member of the consortium?
Davide: First of all, any producer who wants to make and sell the traditional balsamic vinegar with the DOP certification must belong to the Consortium. All the producers must be based and make the product in the specific area of Modena typical for the production of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, using only grapes from the area.
Moreover barrels must be certified as well by the official organization of control. Producers during the whole process of production must follow the strict regulation of production. Several inspections take place in order to make sure all rules are followed and respected. Once the product is ready, only the Consortium is allowed to bottle the traditional balsamic vinegar and only after approval.
Meg: I understand that a sommelier from the consortium visits and tests each batch to ensure it is up to the consortium's standards. Can you explain how he tests the vinegar?
Davide: When a producer wants to bottle his balsamic (which can happen maximum once per year from each barrel, only 10% from the small barrel and only if it is minimum 12 year aged), the product is taken to the Consortium for the tasting. There a Commission of five “Maestri Assaggiatori” (Master Tasters, like sommelier for the wine) is waiting to test the balsamic. To ensure the product meets the standards of quality requested by the Consortium for the DOP certification, the tasters need to take into consideration all its organoleptic characteristics: color, viscosity, smell and, of course, taste. Each expert from the commission fills out a form giving a score for each characteristic. The product is approved only if the average of the votation given by the experts reaches a minimum score. The final score is given by the harmony of the product considered and analyzed all-around, from all points of view.
Meg: Modena is known for the quality of its balsamic vinegar. What about the area makes its product so special?
Davide: What makes the production of balsamic vinegar possible and the product so special is certainly a series of very important steps. Some depend on the hand of the man, which is really necessary being balsamic an artisanal product, others just depend on some conditions out of our control. For sure the ability, experience and expertise of the balsamic vinegar makers is at the base of a good product. The type and quality of the grapes and of the barrels are as well of primary importance.
But what makes possible the process which turns the initial grape must into a flavorful, aromatic, thick, healthy, genuine, precious liquid called balsamic vinegar is the area. Modena (and Reggio Emilia) are the only two areas in the world where it is possible to make a product with these characteristics in terms of ingredients, process and final result. What is unique here compared to any other part of the world is the microclimate and the air. There are micro-organisms, yeasts in the air that “plunge” into the must contained in the barrels and start the fermentation. From the moment the cooked must is put into the wooden barrels, a process of natural fermentation and acetification starts and transforms the must into balsamic vinegar.
Last, but not least, we can not forget the importance of the tradition. A small bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena does not just contain this product, but also the passion and heart of each producer. Patience is an essential element when dealing with such a product and activity. Not only are the high quality ingredients, the quality of the wooden barrels, and certain weather conditions necessary factors for the balsamic vinegar production, but the overall time is something necessary that can not be shortened.
It becomes more difficult in a world where everything and everybody must be fast, where optimization and profit have become more important than anything else. But patience and passion are what make the product high in quality so these traits are necessary to a producer's satisfaction with his own work and product.