Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The family pantheon


Last week I visited Vecchia Dispensa, an acetaia [balsamic vinegar maker] in the province of Modena in northern Italy. Like most Modenese families, the family behind Vecchia Dispensa has been making balsamic vinegar for generations. In the past, every family kept a batteria, or set of barrels for making balsamic, in the attic. The production was small - just enough for the family to use the balsamic to cure occasional headaches or indigestion. 

(As a side note, I stayed in an agriturismo in Modena one night last week. We got to talking about food with the owners, one of whom then led me over to the attic closet to show me their own family's balsamic batteria. Even as balsamic becomes a known entity around the world, the small family production tucked away in the attic remains a part of Modenese culture today.)

Today Vecchia Dispensa produces a little more balsamic than the family requires; we sell hundreds of bottles of their vinegar every year. The tradizionale vinegar - the stuff that's made the way it always was, aged for decades in small batterie - is kept in a five-hundred year old tower that used to be a prison. You get to the top via a stone spiral staircase that's only about eight inches wider than I am. In each room along the way up, you find sets of batterie filled with balsamic.

Most of the barrels are decades old. They don't create new sets all that often - only when a new daughter is born into the family. The new batteria is named for the new baby, and when that baby becomes a woman, the barrels belong to her. Over the decades, batterie will develop personalities: each will produce a balsamic with slightly different characteristics.

In the top room of the tower, the views over the charming town of Castelvetro in Modena and the surrounding countryside are stunning. But what's even better, I think, are the photographs on the walls. They show the family - especially the daughters - and are surrounded by the barrels that bear their names. It's a beautiful way to map the family tree. It's also a very pleasantly aromatic way to showcase the family pantheon.

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