Chef Olivia Hayo of Beautiful Food Inside + Out re-creates her culinary memories of the Mediterranean using inspiration, and local, seasonal ingredients from her home in San Diego's Little Italy. This week, she recalls her first introduction to vinegar as sweet as honey, in an 16th-century farmhouse in Acetaia San Giacomo.
Centuries old brick estates called out like sirens on our odyssey through Emilia-Romana. We left behind the artisan cheeses of Parmigiano-Reggiano, heading next to Acetaia San Giacomo, a vinegar cellar housed in a restored 16th-century farmhouse. There we were warmly welcomed by Andrea Bezzecchi, a fourth-generation producer of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia.
He explained that the transformation from grape to the rich elixir begins with the autumn harvest, when he sources regional grape must, a mixture of fresh whole grapes crushed with skins, stems and seeds. To prevent the highly fragrant mixture from fermenting into wine it’s boiled in open vats until it is reduced by seventy percent, in a process that takes anywhere from twelve to twenty-four hours.
We entered a cellar with large wood barrels stacked as high as the low-arched ceiling. The barrels contained the reduced grape must, called saba, which was undergoing a natural fermentation for three months before beginning its long journey to become the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar being served upstairs.
We climbed the steps to find batteria arranged in rows like sentries protecting their precious contents. Each batteria was made up of several barrels, each made of a different wood, each progressively smaller than the one before it.
At Acetaia San Giacomo, Bezzecchi uses cherry, chestnut, oak, juniper, and mulberry wood to impart their unique complexity to the finished product. A white cloth was laid across each barrel opening to protect its contents from contamination, while still allowing air inside to help facilitate water evaporation.
Once a year a portion from the smallest barrel, the most concentrated balsamic, is tasted, certified, and then bottled before the barrel is ‘topped off’ with contents from the larger barrel preceding it. This method ensures a minimum twelve-year aging process, with some batteria yielding twenty-five-year aged balsamic.
Our time at Acetaia San Giacomo ended in the tasting room where one drop told the story of the precious vinegar’s twenty-five year odyssey. Both sharp and smooth, with pungent notes of juniper and dark cherry, it's the ideal ingredient for adding both acidity and richness to a dish.
Back home in San Diego, my Traditional Balsamic Vinegar bottle is running low, so I have restocked with eighteen-year aged balsamic vinegar from the farmers market. When I use a vinegar as complex as these are, I want to keep the dish simple, to allow the flavors to sing alongside the natural freshness of its base.
This week, I happened upon beautiful bunches of earthy, multi-colored spring radishes, which I roasted with olive oil until they caramelized, and topped with a sprinkle of creamy goat cheese and a drizzle of robust balsamic vinegar.